‘Marley was dead, to begin with’. The 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, his torment and ultimately his redemption, played out against a background of nightmarish supernatural visitations.
‘A Christmas Carol’, by Charles Dickens, was written in 1843, during a time when the nation was revisiting its old Christmas traditions whilst discovering new ones – for instance, the first printed Christmas cards were introduced in the same year, carol singing was being revived with new words being devised for old tunes, and around the same time, the custom of decorated Christmas trees was introduced to the country by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert.
The telling of this life-affirming story of how the ghosts of Past, Present and Future changed the outlook, and of course, the eventual path of old Ebenezer Scrooge, has in turn become a Christmas tradition in itself. With this in mind, I thought 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 ritual and early Christianity: as I found, some are weird, some are wonderful – all are fascinating.
PLYGAIN 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 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 lit with 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 something that had already been performed – quite a feat, as these services could last for several hours!
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 of Cilcain, nestled in the Clwydian Hills, has enjoyed a long and it is thought, 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.
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 (“dryw” in Welsh means both “wren” and “druid”), the wren has also long been held in high regard across European folklore as the King of Birds, 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, to be 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 lords, 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 in certain areas it survived into the modern era, with the bird being replaced by a potato stuck with feathers, and ‘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 really quite terrifying as it comes into view from the darkness, accompanied by singing, music and the rhythmic, steady beat 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 disconcerting snapping sound! This outlandish 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 wits’ using 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, too! Flintshire has its own Mari Lwyd tradition, brought to the region by Mold-based Dawnswyr Delyn.
Just as these customs have survived down the centuries, we each create our own family traditions and rituals, observed and celebrated year on year. As we put up the decorations and dress the tree, joyous memories of Christmas past come back to greet us with every old, familiar trinket we unwrap; precious treasures which will be stored safe again come Twelfth Night, to be lovingly rediscovered when this most wondrous of seasons comes around once more.
Wishing you all a very merry Christmas, with lots of happy memory making.