History and Customs of the New Year

With December – and with it, 2010 as a whole - slipping away like sand through our fingers, it’s time once again to welcome Terry John for another seasonal sojourn through the pages of history. 

Now that Christmas is over, we can all relax a little – the annual orgy of giving and receiving gifts, sending cards, eating and drinking far too much is over for another year. There is just the New Year’s Eve booze-up to look forward to and once that is over we can slump back into the usual routine.

For our ancestors, though, the New Year celebration was more important than the Christmas one. They knew that it marked a turning point; the immediate past, with all its problems, worries and responsibilities was being left behind. A different, unknowable future lay ahead and if, you were wise, you did everything you could to ensure that the New Year began in as favourable a way as possible.

All existing debts were paid off, otherwise you might be haunted by debt for the next 12 months. Neither did you lend or borrow, in case that set the pattern for the coming year. Even your behaviour on the first day of  January determined your future behaviour, so if you were late in clambering out of bed, you would be lazy every day afterwards and that would affect your prosperity.

The New Year was therefore a time of divination and omens – people wanted to know what was in store for them and their families. Good or bad luck could be brought into the house by the first person to call at New Year. In Pembrokeshire it was bad luck for a man to see a man first thing or for a woman to see a woman. The Christian name of the first visitor was also important; Dafydd, Ifan and Sion were lucky men’s names as were Sian, Marged and Mair for women, but you really didn’t want to encounter someone whose names began with the letters T or W, as they foretold Trouble and Worry.

Each of the Twelve Days of Christmas was thought to represent the corresponding month of the year, so people studied the weather each day as a guide to the coming year – if the first day of Christmas was wet, then so would January be wet, and so on.

In the past, it was much more usual for gifts to be given on New Year’s Day than at Christmas. This was known as calennig (New Year’s Gift) and began early in the morning and continued until midday. In many Pembrokeshire parishes, groups of children would make their way from door to door to wish the inhabitants health and prosperity for the coming year. The children each carried an apple or an orange stuck with grains of corn, symbolising good fortune. Sometimes the apple was also decorated with oats, raisins, flour and sprigs of box or rosemary tinted with gold paint.

At each of the houses they visited, the children would chant a verse:

Mi godais heddiw ma’s o’m ty

A’m cwd a’am pastwn gyda mi,

A dyma’m neges ar eich traws,

Sef llanw’m cwd a bara a chaws.

(I came today out of my house with a bag and sticks, my errand here is to fill my bag with bread and cheese.)

Not surprisingly, the bag soon became filled with pieces of cake, fruit, nuts and coins.

Another well-loved Pembrokeshire custom – and one recently revived at Bluestone as part of a plan to re-establish some of the ancient local traditions – was New Year’s Water. Early on New Year’s morning, groups of boys would visit a spring or well in their neighbourhood  and draw from it enough water to fill a wooden bowl. The bowl, decorated with ribbons, was carried from house to house and a sprig of holly, box or rosemary was used to sprinkle every person met along the way. If the group was invited into a house, every room was blessed in the same way, and even the doors of the houses that were closed to them were splashed. It was important to recite the correct verse whilst sprinkling the New Year’s Water:

Here we bring new water from the well so clear,

For to worship God with, this Happy New Year;

Sing levy dew, sing levy dew, the water and the wine,

With seven bright gold wires, the bugles that do shine ;

Sing reign of fair maid, with gold upon her toe,

Open you the west door and turn the old year go;

Sing reign of fair maid, with gold upon her chin,

Open you the east door and let the new year in.

The verse and the custom may date back to the medieval period. The ‘fair maid’ could be the Virgin Mary and the words ‘levy dew’ may be a corruption of the Welsh phrase llef  I Dduw - (cry to God).

The Christmas celebrations came to an end on 6th January, just as they do today – although in some areas they continued until the Festival of St Mary of the Candles, 2nd February.  Decorations were taken down and the Yule Log, which had been put on the fire at the beginning of the festivities, was removed. The ashes were carefully stored away, as they were thought to keep away all harm. A small portion was added to the seed corn when it was sown in the fields in the Spring in order to ensure that the next season’s crops grew fruitfully.

One famous tradition was the Mari Lwyd custom. This rather terrifying custom involved a horse’s skull decorated with coloured ribbons, with thick bottle glass for the eyes. The skull was mounted on a pole five foot long or more in length and a white sheet was hung from it. What made it even more scary was that the lower jaw of the skull was fixed on a spring and the man who carried the whole contraption, and who was hidden under the sheet, could open and shut the jaw with a loud snapping sound.

In St Davids an old canvas sheet was sown up to represent the head of a fantastic creature, with huge buttons for eyes and a pair of old harvesting gloves for ears. A pitchfork stuck into the head enabled it to be turned in all directions and many a sleepy citizen of St Davids received a mighty shock when the monster’s head was thrust through the open bedroom window.

As the Mari Lwyd processed through the streets it was accompanied by the music of fiddles and by people dressed in a variety of costumes, with their faces blackened. At each house, the leader tapped upon the door and verses were sung or recited. When invited in, the women of the household were kissed and chased around. There was singing and dancing, drinking and eating before the Mari Lwyd staggered off to the next household.

Twelfth Night was marked by the making of special cakes and by the drinking of wassail. This special concoction, also drunk at Christmas, was made from spiced wine, ale and honey and was drunk from a bowl with looped handles, decorated with ribbons. In some areas of Wales, the bowl was filled first with layers of baked apples, cakes and sugar, over which the liquid was then poured. Once all the alcohol had been drunk, the cakes could be eaten.

Another Twelfth Night custom practised in Pembrokeshire was the tradition of the Wren House. A wren or other small bird was placed in a specially made and decorated miniature house and this was carried in procession through the village to the accompaniment of carols. (A Wren House made in 1869 at Marloes, near Haverfordwest, can be seen in the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagan’s, Cardiff.)

In Tenby four men carried the Wren House on a platform, chanting verses as they went, calling at various houses along the way. It wasn’t wise to turn the procession away if they knocked at your door, as they would then sing out;

Gwynt frralwm ddelo’n hwthwm

I droi’r ty a’I wyneb fyny.

May a raging wind come suddenly to turn the house upside down.

You have been warned!



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