Category Archives: Monmouthshire

Custom contrived: Chepstow Wassail and Mari Llwyd

Standard

Each January the boarder town of Chepstow becomes home to a fascinating mix of Welsh and English customs – The Chepstow Wassail. A colourful picandmix custom.

On arrival it is very evident this has become a rallying place for all people who wish to celebrate the winter and as such Morris teams from a wide area attend. The town is awash with blacks, purples and the sounds of bells, cries and clashing of sticks.

Strictly speaking the custom is divided into two – the wassail an English luck giving custom previously described here and the Mari Lwyd – a Welsh house visiting good luck custom which has not been fully covered yet in this blog.

When I arrived there a large group had assembled around a rather raggedy looking tree below the grounds of the castle. Here some Border Morris were half way through an apple wassail, pouring ale over the roots whilst the congregation assembled singing a wassailing song, toast attached to trees and ribbons swaying.  Everyone despite the cold was enjoying themselves smiling and enjoying the special bond the custom had established.

A few metres away were some dancers and weaving in an out of the crowd were Kentish Hooden Oss making the children laugh and look bemused in equal measure. They were a fair way from home again indicating the countrywide popularity of the custom.

No room at the inn or stable!

However in the pub nearby was a Mari Lwyd, one of a number in the town, which was about to go through the Pwnco, a rhyme/song full of riddles – a sort of old Welsh rap battle! The landlord was preventing the Mari Lwyd and his team from entering. From a casual observer one might agree for outside clad in a white sheet was a scene from perhaps from a horror film – a bleach white horses skull. The Mari Lwyd is a curious custom and one we will only briefly discuss here.

“The discussion was From inside the house

What, ho! Morganwg’s happy land
Is full of corn and barley
What, ho! is your request – demand?
Answer! We grant short parley

From the Mari Lwyd party outside

Honest men are we, who sue

Favours many, money due
To the Mari Llwyd from you!

From inside the house to end the contest

Come in, come in, and sit at ease

Ye merry sons of Cymru
Here’s sweet metheglin, here’s cream cheese
With milk, cream cakes and flummery!”

The Mari Lwyd is a strange mixture of macabre and marvellous. Its empty eye sockets filled with sparkling green glowing glass eyes, upon its head a crown of flowers with ribbons attached which flew in the cold winds. Its head shrouded to make it look even more mysterious – and hide the pole. Its jaw open and closing like a clapperboard.

Once inside it joined a whole throng of Mari Lwyds snapping and leaning over into people’s lunches and attempting to drink their lemonades! Those who expected them were very amused but there one or two who found it all a bit too weird.

Border Morris on the border

As darkness fell the main proceedings begun. At first the Mari Lwyds went to the bridge for the famed “Meeting Of English and Welsh at the border  Here a large crowd had assembled at the ‘border’ some carrying England flags on the English side and the others Welsh flags. The official start begun when a large rocket was sent into the air to tell the Mari Lwyd that the English wassailers had finished and that they were about to reach the bridge’s middle. With them the group carried lanterns, played music and carried a large apple cart carrying the symbol of their wassailing – a decorated apple tree. As a horn sounds, the sign of the English approach a which both them move slowly to the centre shouting and cheering carrying their flags. Warlike in a way if it wasn’t so surreally apparelled. Despite their menacing approach as soon as the middle is meet celebrations break out, hand shaking, flag exchanging and singing. Wassail to everyone and happy new year. If only every border was like. The Welsh invite the English over to join them in Chepstow. After then the Mari Lwyd descended upon the Chepstow Museum. Here the crowd once again got into good spirited boisterousness, name calling and ilk. Here the Pwnco continued until the Lord and Lady of the ceremony appeared at the museum door and offered a wassail cup full of mulled cider.

A meeting of skulls

Organised as event to revive local music dance and folk customs locally by the The Widders Welsh Border Morris and Tim Ryan of the Severn Princess ferry restoration since 2005 and has grown from strength to strength. As mentioned teams come from far afield across Wales and into the midlands and beyond. In 2019 there were 30 Mari Lwyds although this included some out of area versions such as Kimberley’s Owd Oss! For a custom once in decline it is clearly more and more popular. Indeed popularity has been an issue and in 2020 the custom went for a rest and a re-think due to its massive success. An article in a local newspaper stated that:

“It has grown so much in popularity since it began 15 years ago, to the extent that organisers have pulled the plug while they ponder how best to reorganise it. Mick Lewis, a member of the organising committee, said he is proud that they have built such a popular event, and confirmed the festival will return in 2021 after a period of “soul-searching”.”

One of the organisers stating:

“Fifteen years ago we started with just one Mari Lwyd, and now we get over 30 turn up, along with hundreds of people,”

Such can happen to customs, that their popularity outweighs their origin provision and thought. Bloggers like myself must be very aware of the impact our reviews can have. So I should state that the Chepstow Wassail is a great custom perhaps to reduce numbers not one to go to every year and spectate.

Custom survived: Halloween Apple bobbin

Standard

Long before we were seeing hoards of children traipsing the street dressed up as ghosts, goblins and ghouls, children would be found inside with their heads down in water. Why? For many people apple bobbing was Hallowe’en and indeed for many it still is a fun part.

At first glance these parties appear to be influenced by American popular culture and certainly have been growing in popularity since the 1970s and 80s. Indeed Enid Porter in their 1974 Folklore of East Anglia suggests so by stating:

“East Anglia has no long-established customs observed at Hallowe’en, 31 October. Of recent years, however, probably due to the ever increasing interest in witchcraft, parties are often held in private homes and clubs and societies in which some old Halloween games such as bobbing for apples in a pail of water are played.” 

This would appear in line with the growth of Trick or Treat however this would be wrong.  For in Nella Last’s wartime diary she records parties in the 1920s and 30s, pre-war family:

“Hallowe’en 31 October 1939…my towels all in a drawer and not in a wet heaps in the garage where everybody would have been ducking for apples.”

Indeed in Stamford, a correspondent in Maureen Sutton’s 1996 A Lincolnshire Calendar records in 1940:

“At school we would stop lessons. A large bowl would be filled with cold water in which the teacher would float the apples. We’d have to have our hands behind our backs. Three or four of us would get round the bowl and we’d try to bite and retrieve the apple floating in the water, while at the same time the teacher would gleefully dunk our heads in it.”

  1. S Burne records that an extract from an old notebook records:

“Malvern, Ist November, 1888. Colonel C.- G.- tells me that when he was a boy, I suppose about 1845-48, he stayed in a Denbighshire farmhouse, where the sons (young men) stripped to the waist and ‘bobbed’ for apples in a tub of water on All Saints Eve. They urged him to join them, in the presence of the full family circle, and laughed at his modest scruples.”

In fact Owen’s Account of the Bards, preserved in Sir R. Hoare’s Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales (vol. ii. p. 315), provides more evidence of the ancient origin of the custom:

“The autumnal tire kindled in North Wales on the eve of the 1st of November is attended by many ceremonies, such as running through the fire and smoke, each casting a stone into the fire, and all running off at the conclusion, to escape from the black short-tailed sow ; then supping upon parsnips, nuts, and apples ; catching at an apple suspended by a string, -with the mouth alone, and the same by an apple in a tub of water.”

The presence of the names for Hallowe’en as Duck in Newcastle or Apple or Dookie Apple Night in Swansea, ‘Apple and candle night’ in Pontypool, ‘Bob apple’ or ‘crab apple Night’ in Durham. Opie and Opie (1956) Folklore of Children record that:

“like most British games the games on Hallowe’en give the onlookers splendid entertainment, but demand fortitude on the part of the players.”

Image may contain: one or more people and foodThey describe the method as follows:

“Duck Apple. A large bowl or tub is filled with cold water (sometimes soapy water) and a number of apples floated in it. One or two players a time get down on their knees and, with their hands behind their backs (not infrequently tied behind their backs) try to get hold of one of the apples with their teeth ‘when they have done this they must lift the apple out of the basin. If they do this they may eat it.” In Monmouthshire, as the game begins the children shout gleefully: Crab Apple Night is my delight. If you take a bite of the apple nothing will happen to you, but, exults the 11 year old ‘if you miss, your head goes into the water with a splash’ ”

Variants of the game exist with Forking for apples, using a fork or Bob Apple or Snap Apple being on the line.

Silver RavenWolf  in his 1999 Hallowe’en links the custom to the Roman invasion of Britain where she states that they brought with them their deity Pomona and her sacred apple tree. It is said that during the annual celebration, young unmarried people would use it as a way to determine who was next to marry and indeed it is recorded in the 1800s a maiden would place the apple under a pillow to dream of this future husband. However, the first custom is mentioned by Charles Vallencey in his 1789 book Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis as occurring in Ireland. An Irish origin seems more likely than a Roman one

Whether Roman or Irish it is good to see amongst all the pointless plastic and pumpkins it remains and is even features amongst the Youtube influencer generation.

Custom demised: Calennig on New Year’s Day

Standard

“Dydd calan yw hi heddiw, Rwy’n dyfod ar eich traws I ‘mofyn am y geiniog, Neu grwst, a bara a chaws. O dewch i’r drws yn siriol Heb newid dim o’ch gwedd; Cyn daw dydd calan eto Bydd llawer yn y bedd.”

Translated: “Today is the start of the New Year, and I have come to you to ask for coins, or a crust, and bread and cheese. O come to the door cheerfully without changing your appearance; Before the next arrival of the new year many will be dead.”

image

On New Year’s morning the streets of parts of Wales, rural areas of Dyfed, Aberystwyth, Monmouthshire, Radnorshire, Glamorgan and Carmarthan, could be heard this curious rhyme which was associated with a strange gift. As a custom it only appears to have spread with slight variation to the boarder regions of England – Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean, Shropshire and Worcestershire. Although we associate Christmas Day as the traditional day for gifts, New Year’s Day was also often associated with gift giving. This was more often associated with the idea of First footing – which survives albeit in a weakened form across England – even this year I remembered my bread to bring in.

Yet as noted until fairly recently Wales had a unique house visiting custom one which involved children. They would visit their relatives by midday carrying skewered apples stuck with fruit and raisins – akin to pomander. Ronald Hutton in his Stations of the Sun describes them as follows:

“an apple or orange, resting on three sticks like a tripod, smeared with flour, stuck with nuts, oats or wheat, topped with thyme or another fragrant herb and held by a skewer.”

It was the fruit which was called the Calennig it appears rather than the custom. In the book 1944 book The Pleasant Land of Gwent, Fred Hando notes a report of his friend Arthur Machen who noted:

“When I was a boy in Caerleon-on-Usk, the town children got the biggest and bravest and gayest apple they could find in the loft, deep in the dry bracken. They put bits of gold leaf upon it. They stuck raisins into it. They inserted into the apple little sprigs of box, and they delicately slit the ends of hazel-nuts, and so worked that the nuts appeared to grow from the ends of the holly leaves … At last, three bits of stick were fixed into the base of the apple tripod-wise; and so it borne round from house to house; and the children got cakes and sweets, and-those were wild days, remember-small cups of ale.”

In Gentlemens magazine march 1919:

“Children to their inexpressibly journey will be drest in their best bibs and aprons, and may be seen handed along the streets, some beating Kentish pippins, others oranges stuck with cloves, in order to crave a blessing of their godfathers and god others”

Generally states as the Calennig had a basic design. As Jacqueline Simpson in Folklore of the Welsh boarder this was an apples mounted on three wooden legs (a tripod) and decorated with sprigs of box and hazel nuts.

It was not always restricted to apples either sometimes it was an orange in this case using holly, tinsel, raisins, gold and silver glitter being added.

The Opie’s in Lore of Schoolchildren (1955) notes of a Radnorshire girl

“I always go New Year gifting with my sister and friends, about four of us. I get up about 7 O’clock and call for my friends and go around the houses and farms:

“I wish you a merry Christmas,

A happy new year,

A pocket full of money and a cellar full of beer,

A good fat pig to last you all year,

Please give me a New Year’s gift for this New Year.”

She stated that sometimes she would get apples or mince pies. She stated that gifting must finish by midday otherwise people will shout ‘fool at you.’

The custom appeared similar in south-west Shropshire in Clun where the children recited:

“Happy New Year. Happy New Year, I’ve come to wish you happy New Year.

I’ve got a little pocket and it is very thin,

Please give me a penny to put the money in,,

If you haven’t got a penny, a half penny will do, if you haven’t got a half penny – God bless you.”

Interestingly in Glamorgan and Carmarthen they could extend it to the entire month. Whether we should include the English counties is unclear, as outside of Wales the decorated apple does not appear to be recorded. It was called The gift in Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Interestingly, Simpson in Folklore of the Welsh boarder states they were still common in Monmouthshire and around St Briavels in 1900. In Chepstow she states before the First World War it was called a Monty and those who carried it chanted:

“Monty, Monty, Happy New Year,

A pocket full of money and cellar full of beer”

Origins of the custom

It is possible that the custom descended from adults for in Herefordshire, the 1822 Gentleman’s Magasine notes that the peasantry called with:

“a small pyramid made of leaves, apples, nuts etc,, gilt in hope of receiving gifts in exchange for the luck this conferred.”

Yet by 1880s it was only youngsters. Certainly in 17th and 18th references are made to a decorated orange with cloves being a gift for New Years in England. Brand (1900) in his Observations on popular antiquities makes note of a remark on the Christmas masque of Ben Jonson ‘he has an orange and rosemary, but not a clove to stick in it Hutton in his Stations of the Sun saw the three components as representing gifts of the Three Wise Men of sweetness, wealth and immortality. The author of The weird wonders of wales – the right way with Calennig from 12/12/1986 notes:

“This calennig apple clearly dates from ancient times, being a representation of the sun which was absent during winter.

Death of the custom?

Even by the early 20th century it was in decline as Donald Davis of Those were the days from 11/7/1936 notes:

“Lately the carrying of an apple has been discontinued and only the recitation of brief verses or greetings and the collection of new pennies mark the custom in those districts where it has survived.”             

In Llandysul, Carmarthanshire, an account on the BBCs Domesday Reloaded records:

The custom has rapidly declined over the years and this year, 1985, very few children came collecting because the children today get enough pocket money and food. Also, many children may not have been told about the custom by their parents.”

In other parts of the country it was still being recorded but it in a way the well-meaning anonymous author of The author of The weird wonders of wales – the right way with calennig from 12/12/1986 perhaps by begrudging gifts led to its decline:

“Soon it will be calennig time. That’s when youngsters come to the door asking for me years gifts. Over the last few years, those who have come to my door have been duly treated, but this year will be different. Why? Because they haven’t been doing it right! Shame on them. We shall put things right. The way it should be done….is for the children to knock day a proper calennig verse to the person who answers, and then receive the gift.

He also goes on to note he had seven such verses that the children should use.

“Os fyddech chi mor garedig, Ac agor drws y ty, Y flwyddyn fwyaf lucid a fyddo gyda chwi” ‘Blwyddyn newydd dda I chi, Ac I bawb sydd yn y ty, dyma yw’n dymuniad ni O ddechrau’r flwyddyn hon.’ If no one answers Blwyddyn newydd ddrwg, Llond y ty o fwg.’ A bad new year may your house fill with smoke and then run away like the clapper readers can help preserve the custom too by responding to those youngsters who ‘do it proper’, let’s see what we can do to keep our traditions alive”

I wonder if they heeded him. Certainly there is little reference I can find to the custom through the 90s. Today Calennig has become a name for civic New Year’s celebration, often for children, such as those held in Cardiff. Yet it is difficult to be sure with private and domestic customs. Does it still survive? Certainly it did in 2003 but by the sound of the article The custom of calennig on 16/1/03 it did not sound particularly healthy (with five children only)!:

“The old welsh tradition of calennig is still alive in Llanrhystud. At around 11 o’clock on New Year’s Day in the morning the joyful sound of children’s voices was heard at several homes in and around the village as five local children sang traditional New Year songs to wish all those they visited a happy new year. Some were rewarded sign gifts of money. In older times children would be given gifts of fruit, cakes or sweets. Calennig normally begins soon after the dawn of the New Year and continues until noon, the earliest callers are generously rewarded for their enthusiasm. It is good to see this ancient custom continuing well into the twenty first century.”

The fact that the custom survived into the 80s with no mention as a living custom by folklorists is astounding, survival into the 21st century even more amazing, but of course such customs can survive like the New Year’s Penny Scramble in Driffield which was then absent from books and sites like the excellent Calendercustoms. Certainly people are aware of it as the Youtube clip and Twitter feeds shows and guides how to make one exist. But does any child still go out properly house visiting with one? Has it died a death completely like other house visiting customs succumbed to the power of Hallowe’en! Does it still survive where you are? Please comment and perhaps add photos.