Weird and Wonderful Welsh Christmas Traditions

How to make a Mari Lwyd Welsh Christmas traditions

We all do Christmas our own way. Some spend it with family, others take a break in warmer climates and the people of Cardiff uphold an ancient Welsh Christmas tradition or two, some that date back centuries.

In the spirit of the season, we at Exchange Hotel took a look at some of the weird and wonderful ways the people of Wales have enjoyed spending their Christmas’ over the years.

Plygain

Not for those who want to get to bed early so Santa can come and drop off their pressies, plygain is one of the oldest Welsh Christmas traditions still celebrated today.

The earliest recording of a plygain service is from the 13th century and involves townsfolk gathering together in rural churches where men belt out their favourite Welsh carols into the early morning.

Traditionally services would begin at around 3 am and involve street processions where the church rector would be escorted from his home to his place of practice.

He would often be accompanied by torches and the sound of cow horns and hundreds of candles would light the way as well as the service throughout.

Services stopped at first light when everyone would then go home and celebrate Christmas morning together.

What a wonderful way to start Christmas day with an ancient Welsh Christmas tradition.

Taffy

This sweet-toothed Welsh Christmas tradition is upheld on Christmas eve and was a way to keep busy until the 3 am plygain service began.

Families would gather together in one home or another and begin process of making tasty Christmas day treats for everyone. The tradition began at a time when sweets and confectionary were a luxury few could afford and the joy of Christmas eve taffy making was born.

These sweet treats at Christmas were made from what was once expensive sugar and the rich salted butter Wales was famous for. Combined together they provided a little luxury that every family could afford.

A fun part of this sticky Welsh Christmas tradition involved dropping blobs of molten taffy into ice cold water and watching it cool. Once cooled the family would play a game which involved picking out shapes that resembled letters and using them to initial the names of any potential future children from young couples in the room.

Why not adopt the Welsh Christmas tradition of Taffy making into your family and give everyone a taste of a delicious Welsh custom?

Mari Lwyd

To some, this may seem like quite a creepy Welsh Christmas tradition as it involves decorating the skull of a horse and wearing it above your head.

The earliest documented occurrence of Mari Lwyd was the 17th-century and the tradition involved groups of men coming together to follow a makeshift hobby horse around town.

The Mari Lwyd horse would be carried by the “leader” and he would be followed by his merry men in various forms of costume or fancy attire such as the playful characters of Punch and Judy.

These groups would proceed to make their way from door to door requesting entry into the homes of locals in song. Those dressed as Punch would tap on the door or knock on the floor to keep up the pace of the song and Judy would brush the windows and walls with a broom.

The owners of homes denied entry, again through the power of song, and this continued back and forth until one or the other gave up. If the owners of the home were first to yield they had to let the group in for food and merriment.

Homeowners also had to ensure they warned Punch not to touch their fireplaces too otherwise he would rake out ember and ash from open fire grates.

Today the Welsh Christmas tradition of the Mari Lwyd is still widely practised yet instead of a horses skull, which isn’t widely available these days, polystyrene or cardboard shapes are used instead.

How to make a Mari Lwyd

The main components of a Mari Lwyd include;

  • A horses skull (real or custom made)
  • Two large glass marbles or baubles
  • Fake ears
  • Ribbons for the mane
  • A white sheet to cover the carrier’s body
  • A broomstick to support the skull above your head

The Mari Lwyd would be assembled by attaching fake ears onto the skull, placing glass marbles or any other shiny spheres into the eye sockets of the skull, making the mane using ribbons and attaching the finished horses head onto a broomstick making sure the mouth opens.

The carrier would then attach a sheet around the neck of the skull and drape it across his or her body making what resembles a horse ghost.

This is a creepy but wonderful Welsh Christmas tradition that did, and still does, bring communities together at Christmas time.

Wassail

A lovely Welsh Christmas tradition that involves a decorative bowl filled with spiced alcohol.

Instead of mulled wine or cider, the Wassail is an elaborate bowl filled with spices and sugar then topped with warm beer and is often drank during the Mari Lwyd precession

The Wassail bowl is passed around the party for all to share and when taking a sip, custom dictates, the drinker make a wish.

In earlier times wishes were along the lines of healthy harvests and good fortune for the coming year.

Hunting the Wren

A Welsh Christmass tradition that has been traced back as far as Neolithic times, hunting the wren or the wren procession has traversed the UK and parts of France making it a widespread Christmas custom.

The hunting of the wren usually takes place the day after Christmas coinciding with St Stephens day. A day of celebration for a saint who was the first Christmas martyr to be stoned to death in the year 36 for blasphemy against the early Jewish faith. It is believed that when St Stephen was hiding in a bush from his enemies a wicked wren gave away his position.

The hunting of the wren in Wales involves capturing and killing a wren, placing it in a box then marching from door to door. When people opened their doors they would then pay to see the wrens body inside the box then let the procession in for food and drinks.

Should the procession by refused entry a special song was sung;

‘Come raging wind, in fury frown and turn this house all upside down.’

Other Welsh myths relating to the hunting of the wren involve one man hunting the wren and blessing couples in their beds with good tidings for the new year.

Another tells of village men blessing a farmers plough with beers around a family table whilst carrying a decorative wren box complete with dead wren inside.

The wren became a symbol over time as a betrayer and a master of trickery, therefore, capturing it and killing it was a way to start the next year with a clean slate.

Which Welsh Christmas tradition will make it into your family home this year?

Make Exchange Hotel part of your Welsh Christmas tradition

Our stunning hotel has its own rich heritage steeped in Cardiffian culture and today guests can enjoy a stay in history itself.

There are beautifully decorated luxury hotel rooms fit for families, friends and couples staying in Cardiff and our beautiful Culley’s restaurant serves a menu of deliciously classic a la carte dishes, lunches and breakfasts or afternoon tea.

Book your stay this December and sample some of these amazing Welsh Christmas traditions, or fabulous festive events taking place all over Cardiff.

Call on 0151 601 8801 or email info@signatureliving.co.uk and speak with our reservations team today.