‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’ This well-known opening line from the most famous and best loved ghost story ever written sets the scene for the familiar story of a wicked, miserly old man whose shrivelled soul rejects the love and friendship of his fellow men in favour of the cold, dead glint of money, all set against a background of nightmarish supernatural visitations...
‘A Christmas Carol’, by Charles Dickens was published in 1843, during a time when the nation was re-evaluating its old Christmas traditions and discovering new ones – for instance, the first printed Christmas cards were introduced in the same year, while carol singing was enjoying a revival, with new words being devised for old tunes - and just a few years later, the custom of decorated Christmas trees was introduced to the country by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German husband.
Of course, the telling of this life-affirming story of how the ghosts of Past, Present and Future changed the outlook, and of course the future, of old Ebenezer Scrooge, has in turn become a Christmas tradition in itself – and who doesn’t love a good ghost story at Christmas!
With this in mind, I decided it would be interesting to take a look at some of our own peculiarly Welsh traditions, in particular those with their origins reaching back to time immemorial, caught somewhere between pagan rituals and early Christian practices: as I found, some are weird, some are wonderful (some are both!) – but all are fascinating.
PLYGAIN (at Cock-Crow)
The very act of singing is the living, breathing embodiment of the spirit of the Welsh people, and is an important expression of their identity and heritage. Not for nothing is Wales known as the Land of Song, and it isn’t surprising to find that passion being given a voice in Plygain carol services across parts of the country on Christmas morning. The word Plygain stems from the Latin for cock-crow, and indeed these services take place in the cold, dark hours before dawn, with the church or chapel glowing with a halo of brightly burning candles, signifying the coming of Christ as the Light of the World. Originally, the carols would have been sung by the men alone, in three or four part harmonies, and it was considered bad form for anyone to repeat a hymn that had already been sung.
Although Plygain services have largely fallen out of favour since Victorian times, this most Welsh of traditions continues in some areas. For instance, the village of Lloc in North Wales is well known for its service, and the village ofCilcain, nestled in the Clwydian Hills, has enjoyed a long and unbroken Plygain tradition dating back to at least 1532, when the north aisle of St. Mary’s Church in the village was destroyed by fire, thought likely to have been caused by an unattended Plygain candle. Nowadays it is celebrated at the village chapel, Capel Gad, where everyone is warmly welcomed to take part in singing or reciting poetry, in either Welsh or English.
THE HUNTING OF THE WREN (Hela’r Dryw)
An old folk-tale tells of a contest between the birds of the air, to see who could fly the highest, with the winner to be crowned ‘King of the Birds’. A powerful eagle had seemingly won the competition, when a cunning wren, who had concealed himself in the eagle’s feathers, suddenly popped out and flew even higher, thereby winning the crown. The eagle was so incensed that he threw the little bird to the ground, breaking his tail in the process, which explains why, to this day, wrens have short tails.
Revered by the druids as a sacred bird, the wren has also long been held in high regard across European folklore as the King of Birds (the name wren is thought to derive from the Welsh word ‘ren’ which means ‘king’ or ‘queen’), although it seems that the royal title bestowed on this tiny bird has been something of a curse.
The tradition of Hunting the Wren appears to have its origins in a pagan custom connected with good luck, which formed part of the Winter Solstice celebrations. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so lucky for the poor bird, which was hunted and captured by a gang of men and paraded in a cage, dead or alive, and hailed in song as ‘The King of the Birds’.
Where the bird was killed, its death (marked by a ceremonial burial and accompanying dirge) celebrated the demise of winter, but in later years the wren came to represent the unpopular English kings and overlords, prompting the subversive question from revellers: “Would you like to see the wren in a box?”- read ‘king’ for ‘wren’ and you get the gist!
Thankfully, this tradition died out long ago, although ‘wren songs’ connected to the custom still exist.
Y FARI LWYD (The Grey Mare)
With the roots of its tradition lost in the mists of pre-history, the Mari Lwyd is a strange and almost other-worldly celebration, which again marks the passing of the dark days of winter.
The sight of the Mari Lwyd is quite terrifying as it comes into view from the darkness, accompanied by singing, music and the rhythmic beating of a drum. A real horse skull is bedecked with colourful streamers and mounted on a tall pole with a white sheet hanging below, hiding the operator beneath. The eye sockets are often decorated with coloured baubles, and the jaws are wired to enable a startling snapping sound!
This strange horse, accompanied by a group of people, goes from house to house, or more usually these days, pub to pub, to initiate a ‘battle’ of song and poetry (pwnco) in order to gain entry. Consisting of a leader, a fiddler and other characters, the group ensures fun and merriment once entry is gained – with maybe a few festive drinks thrown into the mix!
Of course, while it is fascinating to read about these customs and to learn of their place in our social history, it is our own personal Christmas traditions which are closest to our hearts. As we put up the decorations and dress the tree, memories of Christmas past come crowding joyously back to greet us with every old, familiar trinket we unwrap, shining and precious - treasures to be stored safe again come Twelfth Night, and lovingly rediscovered when this most wondrous of seasons comes around once more.
About the author: Sonia Goulding
Sonia lives with her other half, Jon, and her two gorgeous dogs Alfie and Seren, in the pretty hill village of Cilcain, in the glorious Clwydian Hills. She is passionate about rural north Wales and enjoys researching and writing about the people she meets and the beautiful businesses on our doorstep. She is our local Hills correspondent bringing you snippets of country life and the stories of artisan businesses.
Sonia and Jon consider themselves very lucky to be able to live and work in such wonderful surroundings, counting their blessings every day!