Wales, Christmas in

Wales, Christmas in

Wales has been called "the land of song." Indeed, its Christmas traditions reflect a deep love of singing. Many Americans are familiar with at least one Welsh Christmas song; musicologists believe the familiar Christmas carol,"Deck the Halls," to be of Welsh origin.


Communities across Wales sponsor music and poetry festivals called Eisteddfods in honor of the holiday. These festivals include competitions for the best carols and poems written in Welsh, thus helping to create a large body of Welsh Christmas music and verse. The Royal National Eisteddfod, held each year in August, is the largest of this kind of festival. The Eisteddfod is an ancient Welsh tradition; historical records trace it as far back as the twelfth century.

The Plygain, or carol service, is another old Welsh Christmas tradition involving singing. These church services used to be held around three a.m. on Christmas morning. This tradition survives in a modified form in a few locales. The observances now consist entirely of carol singing and have been shifted to hours considered more reasonable by the participants.

Another old custom taught children to go caroling with calenigs. A calenig is a piece of fruit (usually an apple) studded with spices, garnished with sprigs of greenery, and set on stick legs. Sometimes villagers also stuck a candle into the center of the apple (for a similar cus-tom, see Christingle). Children carried these good-luck charms with them while caroling and gave them away at households where they received a warm welcome. Some writers believe that the word "calenig" comes from the Latin word for "new year," Kalends. Indeed, sprigs of greenery, such as those which adorn the calenig, were typical new year's gifts among the Romans.

Mari Lwyd

The yearly visit of the Mari Lwyd called for verbal, rather than musical, skill. The Mari Lwyd is a kind of hobbyhorse made from a horse's skull covered over with a sheet and ornamented with bits of glass and ribbons. The horse's head is devised in such a way that someone hiding underneath the sheet can snap the horse's jaws open and shut. Around Christmas time the Mari Lwyd appears in the company of a band of local men. This band visits each house in town, knocking on the door and engaging in an informal contest of improvisational verse with the occupants. The contest is over when one or the other party cannot think of anything more to say. Usually the householders concede defeat, after which they are expected to let the Mari Lwyd party enter their home. Tradition dictates that the householders reward the Mari Lywd band with something to drink and perhaps some coins. A similar custom, known as hodening, also takes place in a number of locations in England. These hodening customs occur at several different times of the year, including Christmas.

Wren Hunt

In past centuries boys frequently participated in the wren hunt on St. Stephen's Day, December 26. This custom appears to have died out in the twentieth century, however.

Further Reading

Hubert, Maria, comp. Christmas Around the World. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1998. Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. Patterson, Lillie. Christmas in Britain and Scandinavia. Champaign, Ill.: Garrard Publishing Company, 1970.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003