Christmas is an homogenised affair in the early twenty-first century. From the German Christmas trees, to the American turkey, to the Americanized-Dutch “Santa Claus” in Coca-Cola colours, our modern Christmas follows a pot-pouri of concepts drawn from the world over, that even quite recent ancestors wouldn’t recognise at all.
Many of the Welsh traditions celebrating the birth of Christ in fact have origins that aren’t remotely Christian, or are overtly pagan. Decorating the house with sprigs of holly and ivy, and of mistletoe, plants that bear fruit in winter when most other life is dead and dormant, recalls pre-Roman Brithonic cults of fertility.
Christmas in Wales really didn’t get going until the evening of Christmas Eve, and must have been a gruelling affair, at best. It started with throwing a yule log onto the fire, a huge hunk of fir, apple or other fragrant wood that would burn throughout the holiday, scenting the room. As night fell, relatives and friends arrived. Maybe they’d have done so performing the Mari Lwyd, or “the Grey Mare.” This was a horse’s skull attached to a long pole or broom handle, decorated with ribbons and bells. A sheet covered the person holding the pole. When the door was opened, the visitors would sing — because we do a lot of singing in Wales, even when we’re sober, which few people are on Christmas Eve!
The song, however, was an insult. The householder was expected to respond in kind, singing or rhyming insults, so a bit like rapping, really. This battle of wits is known as “pwnco.” Eventually, inspiration would fail them, and the party was invited in for refreshments.
Wassail has been largely replaced today by mulled wine and punch. The wassail bowl was the biggest one the family had to hand, elaborately decorated and filled with fruit, spices, sugar and warm beer. Everybody would drink from the same bowl as they tucked into an elaborate supper, accompanied by the usual merrymaking: games, singing (no doubt getting louder and ruder as the wassail bowl got emptier), and storytelling. As the hour got late, it was time for Noson Gyfaith: making sweets for the children.
The National Museum of Wales website has a recipe for “taffi”, a corruption of “toffee,” and still widely eaten in the United States. Two pounds of black treacle (molasses), two pounds of golden syrup (corn syrup), two pounds of sugar, and one pound of butter. This was melted and boiled over the open fire for about twenty minutes. It was done when a little poured into icy water went hard immediately without clouding the water. Whatever shape the sample formed resembled the initial of one’s future lover.
The taffi was then poured onto the hearth stone (or a well-greased dish, but it would need to be a big one!). The party members, their hands well buttered, could “pull” the taffy, having a few seconds to risk severe burns while they scooped up long strands of it, twisting and stretching the cooling, hardening taffi until the colour turned gold. If you wanted to show off, you could try moulding it into artful shapes.
By now, the poor family was driving into the early hours. Doubtless, the wassail bowl was empty, and throats and lungs well tuned. It was time for the men to go to the Plygain, while the women put the children, and no doubt themselves with considerable relief, to bed. The men took off to the chapel to sing in the Christmas dawn. From three o’clock until the cock crew they lustily intoned their songs and carols. And when they returned in the early light, the feasting began!
You can say “Bah humbug” if you want, but to me, it sounds like hell! I think I prefer the idea of bed, keeping the children relatively quiet the in the early hours with stockings, and finally wandering downstairs to open the gifts. But the fiercely protestant Welsh, with their frenetic disapproval of idleness, were not even permitted to sleep it off the morning after Christmas. Notwithstanding that December 26th, “Boxing Day,” throughout the British Isles is a part of the Christmas holiday, the tradition of “holming” meant that the last one out of bed was whipped out with savagely thorned holly branches!
Personally, I much prefer the idea of Calennig. This was for New Year’s Morning — not to be conducted after noon — and is so similar to trick or treating that you have to wonder if this is where Americans got their tradition from. Groups of children progressed from door to door, inviting the house holders to admire the totems they’d made: similar to English kristingles, they were apples with three legs skewered into them, and decorated with corn stalks and evergreen sprigs — that would be those pre-Christian fertility symbols again. Greeting the householders with rhymes and songs (we start them young with the singing, see?), they would request Calennig, gifts of coins and treats. And they’d splash you with water, probably a Christian thing, but precisely how much water often reflected what they thought of your Calennig: be generous and enjoy a nice little baptismal sprinkling; tell them to bugger off, and get the whole bucket in your face!
So the next time somebody moans that Christmas isn’t what it used to be in the old days, maybe you should be thankful. Unless you fancy the notion being insulted by a decorated horse skull, of course!
Nadolig llawen, pawb, a blwyddyn newydd dda o Gymru. Merry Christmas, all, and a happy new year from Wales.