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Old Welsh Christmas customs.

These days, Christmas celebrations in Wales are similar to those in the rest of Britain. In the days before Christmas a small tree is decorated with lights and hung with trinkets, and paper decorations often festoon rooms of the house (decorating a Christmas tree is a relatively recent fashion, imported from Germany in the 19th century). It is not uncommon these days for families to buy an artificial Christmas tree. Gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day and the main meal traditionally consists of roast turkey with a range of vegetables, followed by a Christmas pudding. However, writers on the topic often mention old customs, some of which were followed until the early part of the twentieth century, at least in South Wales. 

The "Calennig" sometimes made an appearance at Christmas or New Year's Day. The Calennig was a small decoration with a great history. The word itself is thought to have been derived from the Latin calends and some think the custom dates back to pagan times. An apple (or latterly perhaps an orange) was supported on a tripod of twigs and studded with cloves. A sprig of box (from a nearby hedge) was inserted at the top as shown in my drawing. In later years, the Calennig might be decorated with gold foil and tricked out with raisins made to appear as though they grew from the sprig.

The resulting Calennig would then be displayed in the home or perhaps delivered to friends as a symbolic gift. It was held to be a token of good crops in the coming year. 

Another tradition, not always as welcome as the Calennig, was known as the "Mari Lwyd" (sometimes translated as the "Venerable Mary") . In this, the skull of a horse was arranged on a pole so that the jaws could be snapped open and shut by the bearer, who was covered by the white sheet draped from the skull. The head would carry gaily coloured streamers, perhaps symbolic reins. The "horse" would be joined by a group of local men and the party would proceed to call at the houses of the village. The Mari Lwyd would challenge the householder to compete with him in singing and versifying. If the Mari could "subdue the inmates with superior witticisms and extempore humorous rhymes" the party might be invited inside to partake of Christmas cheer. As might be expected, not all households relished the company of a boisterous group dancing about with a horse's skull on a pole, some might even have found it inconvenient to engage in poetic banter at a late hour: at any rate, the tradition began to be abandoned towards the end of the 19th century. 


 John Weston / Data Wales 1995

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