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Hen Galan: Welsh New Year

On 13th January each year you'll find a community in North Pembrokeshire celebrating Hen Galan, or Welsh New Year's Day. The people of Cwm Gwaun aren’t late to the party though, for them it's the correct date to celebrate the arrival of a New Year, find out why.

What is Hen Galan?

The Gwaun Valley is one of a handful of places which celebrates the New Year according to the old Julian calendar, which means it's on January 13. In 1752 Britain and its empire ditched the Julian calendar, which had been in use since the days of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire, and replaced it with the Gregorian calendar. There was some religious opposition because the changes were felt to be Catholic and in making September shorter people felt as if 11 days were being taken away from them unjustly. Some communities carried on celebrating festivals such as Christmas and New Year and the accompanying rituals late. And so Hen Galan, Welsh for "old New Year", is still marked in the Gwaun Valley.

Hen Galan today: As big as Christmas!

It's so ingrained into the way of life among the 300-odd inhabitants of the Gwaun Valley that even the kids get an unofficial day off school to enjoy the tradition. It's even viewed as a celebration to rival Christmas, and brings everyone together. In 2017 Liliwen McAllister, who grew up in the area, told WalesOnline all about her experience as a child and how they celebrated then and now in the area.

Traditional Hen Galan celebrations (Image: National Library of Wales)

 

She said: “When I was young, me and my friends would walk around to the different farms to sing songs and receive gifts, and if you arrived at a home that was sitting down to eat, you’d have to join them at their table and enjoy the meal as well.

“These days parents drive their children to the different farms to sing. Old New Year’s Day used to be as special as Christmas Day, with turkey and trifle, mince pies, plum pudding - it was a feast.”

How it's celebrated: Singing, eating and down the pub

These days Hen Galan carries on as local tradition rather than any resistance to the new calendar. Across the rest of the country Hen Galan gradually fell out of practice – especially in the 19th century when a growing modern media and greater mobility encouraged conformity in many aspects of cultural life. The day usually begins with children in the valley going door to door singing and wishing residents a Happy New Year. In return they are often given 'Calennig' (a New Year gift), which usually takes the form of sweets or money.

 

The Dyffryn Arms or Bessie's (AlanHughes/DyffrynArms)

 

Like any good Welsh celebration the pub is right at the heart of it and in Cwm Gwaun that’s The Dyffryn Arms. Also known as Bessie’s, named after the legendary landlady Bessie Davies who passed away at the end of 2023, the pub has been in her family since 1840 where each year local primary school children gather to sing and celebrate Hen Galan. In the old days, revellers would even turn up on horseback and just tie the horse outside while they went into the pub.

At Bluestone, our Welsh pub – the Knights Tafarn – is also where we hold our Hen Galan celebrations. Never ones to pass up the chance of a party, if you’ve been lucky enough to stay over the Old New Year, you would’ve been able to join in our celebrations at the Tafarn where traditional Welsh folk songs are sung. Our restaurant Black Pool Mill also gets in on the act with free Prosecco for all tables.

What is Calennig?

Translated into English, Calennig means “New Year celebration or gift”, but its literal translation is “the first day of the month”. A little like trick-or-treating at Halloween, this tradition takes place on the morning of Old New Year’s Day and sees children visiting their neighbours’ homes in the local area and delivering New Year wishes.

This usually took the form of a song, but in places would also include the splashing of water. The children are then be rewarded with “Calennig” a gift or sweets for their visit. Children sing a mix of traditional Welsh songs, but the most frequently heard is this one celebrating Hen Galan, the English translation is provided below the lyrics.

Blwyddyn Newydd dda i chi  (A happy new year to you)

Ac i bawb sydd yn y tŷ (And to everyone in the house)

Dyma fy nymuniad I (This is my wish)

Blwyddyn Newydd dda i chi (A happy new year to you)

Where is Cwm Gwaun?

 A beautiful community known for its strong local traditions and celebrated heritage, Cwm Gwaun is in the north of Pembrokeshire. Around four miles to the southeast of Fishguard, with celebrations including the parish of Pontfaen and the ancient parish of Llanychaer.

 

Though small, the community is nestled in a valley of beautiful Pembrokeshire countryside and is filled with treasured heritage sites including 21 structures and buildings listed for their special interest or importance.  Not for nothing is the Gwaun Valley often listed as one of the best places for a walk in any season. Partly because nearly all trails lead back to Bessie's.

If you want to visit, it’s around a 30-minute drive from Bluestone, and the route takes you over the magnificent Preselli Hills with views and walks that are well worth a visit.

 

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Select images from the National Library of Wales

Image of Dyffryn Arms (CreativeCommons/AlanHughes)