Seven Welsh Christmas traditions you may or may not wish still existed

Thursday 19 November 2015

Are you the last person in your household to wake up on Boxing Day? If so, and you think missing the last of the hot water is bad, it’s worth knowing that in the early 19th century you could have faced a beating from the rest of the family armed with fresh sprigs of holly!

  • Picture of Caerphilly Castle

    Caerphilly Castle

  • Picture of Raglan Castle

    Raglan Castle

  • Picture of Rhuddlan Castle

    Rhuddlan Castle

  • Picture of Valle Crucis Abbey

    Valle Crucis Abbey

  • Picture of Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber

    Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber

Wales has a diverse history, so there’s no surprise the country’s Christmas traditions range from tranquil late night carol services, to the slightly more peculiar past time of decorating a horse’s skull to take around the neighbours’ on New Year.

The festive period is full of historic traditions, from singing carols to exchanging gifts and feasting on rich food – but how many of these old customs come from Wales?

Below are seven Welsh traditions, spanning from the heart-warming to the long-forgotten and the downright strange.

If they sound a bit much for this year, you can still enjoy a traditional Welsh Christmas by visiting a Cadw site and taking part in any a number of festive events including wreath making classes at Castell Coch and Plas Mawr and Santa Claus visits at Tintern Abbey, Blaenavon Ironworks, Raglan Castle and Tretower Court and Castle.

With the exception of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, a number of Wales’s fascinating historic sites are open throughout the festive period.

Castles like Harlech, Chepstow and Kidwelly make for the perfect places to explore and walk off those Christmas calories.

Ken Skates, Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism, said: “Wales has more than 6,000 years of history to explore and like any country our past has its share of unusual traditions!

“Wales’s historic sites are very much year-round attractions and we hope to see families spending time enjoying our wonderful historic environment this Christmas.”

Did you know?

Carols by twilight:

Attending a Plygain service from 3am-6am on Christmas morning was once a key festive tradition in 19th century rural Wales. While many people would rise early for the service, most would stay awake through the night before attending. This twilight tradition would involve unaccompanied male voices singing three or four part harmony carols in the local parish chapel as a way to see in the celebrations of Christmas Day.

The Plygain tradition still lives on in many areas of Wales and often plays a role in the Cadw Christmas events calendar at sites such as Tintern Abbey and St Davids Bishop’s Palace.

Did you know that the tradition of carol singing door to door is actually a result of carols being banned in churches in medieval times?

Horsing around:

The Mari Lwyd was the name given to a decorated horse's skull, which was part of a New Year’s ritual in 19th century Wales. The skull would be decorated with bells and draped in a white sheet before being placed on top of a wooden pole. The figure would then be carried from door to door by a group challenging others to a battle of Welsh verse. This tradition still takes place today in some part of the country.


On Twelfth Night in 19th century Wales, groups of men would go out ‘Hunting the Wren’. Once captured, the tiny bird would be caged in a wooden box and carried door-to-door for all to see.  Thankfully this was not carried into the 20th century.

Prickly present:

The day after Christmas was celebrated in early 19th century Wales with the unpleasant ritual of "holming.” Thankfully now an extinct custom, the last person to get out of bed in the morning would be beaten with prickly holly sprigs... Ouch!

All game:

The contents of a famous Tudor Christmas pie included a turkey stuffed with a goose stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a pigeon. All of this was put in a pastry case and served surrounded by jointed hare, small game birds and wild fowl.

Sweet thing:

Noson Gyflaith (Toffee Evening) was a traditional part of Christmas and New Year festivities in some areas of north Wales during the late 19th century. Families would invite friends to their homes for supper followed by games, making toffee (or taffy), and storytelling.

Festive trick or treat:

From dawn until noon on New Year's Day, children in early 19th century Wales would go from door to door, singing rhymes, splashing people with water and asking for calennig - gifts of small change.

Christmas punch:

Drinking from the wassail bowl was a lucky New Year’s tradition in Wales at the turn of the century. Taken from Anglo-Saxon and Tudor customs, the ornate bowl would be filled with fruit, sugar, spices and topped up with warm beer.

For a full list of our events visit our Events section or to find your nearest site open for a winter’s day out, visit our Days Out section