29 Nov 2019

Rhagfyr – before the shortest day

Jane Down

Sing hey! Sing hey!
For Christmas Day;
Twine mistletoe and holly.
For a friendship glows
In winter snows,
And so let’s all be jolly!
At Christmas play and make good cheer,
For Christmas comes but once a year

Thomas Tusser

Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie (1580)

It all started with a conversation in the marketing office, looking up the meaning of Gorffennaf (July) and discovering that it meant ‘end of summer’.  If you think back to this summer and quite a few previously, it would seem that here in Wales, after a warm or indeed a very hot June and July in recent years, our so-called summer does seem to come to a sudden end in August!  Which then got me thinking about the meaning of other months of the year in Welsh and the customs, traditions and holy days pertaining to those months.

December was originally the tenth month of the year in the calendar of Romulus c. 750 BC which began in March.   With the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1582, December became the last month of the year and the first month of winter.

The Welsh equivalent of December is Rhagfyr – meaning ‘before the shortest day’.  Interestingly, in Scots Gaelic it is called an Dudlach or an Dubhlachd meaning ‘the darkness’!  In Ireland December was called Min a Nollag or the ‘Christmas Month’ (although I read Nollag as Nodalig!).

Sayings pertaining to the month of December, although not of Welsh origin, were commonplace throughout the kingdom and there not being a Derek Brockway around all those years ago to forecast our weather, local people would predict the weather for the month and year ahead by reading ‘the signs’!

If Christmas Day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.

A green winter makes a fat churchyard

If the blackbird sings before Christmas he will cry before Candlemas

Winters Thunder is the Sommers wonder! Thunder and lightning in winter were perceived as bad omens, portending factions, tummults and bloody wars and a thing seldom seen. 

Willsford 1658

According to Godfridus, The knowledge of things unknown (1628), should Christmas Day fall upon a Wednesday, as it does this year, then Winter shall be sharpe and hard, the Spring windy and evil, summer good, vintage plentiful, good wit easily found, young men die, hony sparing, men desire to travel, and ship-men saile with great hazard that yeere.  In each Wednesday to begin a worke is good.

December 7

Holy Day – St Ambrose (c.339-397

No he didn’t invent a certain rice pudding (but I know who did), St Ambrose is patron saint of bees and beekeepers but not because of any personal links to either these creatures or their care, but from the fact that he is portrayed with a hive in respect of his learning; he was an excellent administrator and negotiator, became a Doctor of the Church and it was his hymns that were more influential than his theological works.

December 10

Holy Day – John Roberts (1576 -1610)

Born in Trawsfynydd, north Wales, he went to Paris after studying at Oxford where he converted to Catholicism thence became a Jesuit and then a Benedictine.  In 1603 he went to England as a missionary, implicated himself in the Gunpowder Plot, but was acquitted and banished from the country so he returned to France and became Prior in Douay.  He returned to England but was arrested in 1610, tried for high treason for functioning as a priest and was executed on 10 December.

December 13

Lucy Light

The shortest day and the longest night

Holy Day – Lucy, virgin martyr in Syracuse in 304AD.  She is patron saint of the Blind and of Glaziers.  She defiantly proclaimed her Christianity and gave away her goods, refusing the suitor chosen by her parents.  Her eyes were torn out but miraculously restored before she was put to death.

The feast day of St Lucy also marks the 12 days before Christmas, which in some countries are more important than the 12 days afterwards!

December 21

St Thomas grey, St Thomas grey,

The longest night and the shortest day.


Holy Day – St Thomas the Apostle

St Thomas Day – giving to the poor was a custom associated with this day, usually 1d each and a draught of beer and some bread.   The day was also known as Doleing Day  (going on the Dole?) or Mumping Day and children were said to go Thomasing!


24 December – Christmas Eve

Feast Day of Adam and Eve.  Adam is the patron saint of gardeners and tailors.

Oh Adam was a gardener and god who made him sees

That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees! 

The Glory of the Garden – Kipling


It is said that on the stroke of midnight, cattle in their stalls full upon their knees in an act of devotion – though this usually pertains to the old Christmas Eve which fell on 5th January!

From Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night, bands of wassailers, mummers and carol singers would tour the locality performing or singing plays and carols, receiving in return payment in coin, food or drink!   Here in Wales the traditional Mari Lywd is now making a revival in Wales.  This old custom was thought to start on Christmas Eve and finish on the twelfth day of Christmas.  Thought to pertain to pagan origins, the first written account appears in 1800 in J. Evans’ A Tour through Part of North Wales, in the year 1798, and at Other Times, remarking on the custom in North Wales, however, Evans published another work in 1804

A man on new year’s day, dressing himself in blankets and other trappings, with a factitious head like a horse, and a party attending him, knocking for admittance, this obtained, he runs about the room with an uncommon frightful noise, which the company quit in real or pretended fright; they soon recover, and by reciting a verse of some cowydd, or, in default, paying a small gratuity, they gain admission.

The skull of a horse is mounted on a pole, held by man unknown, who is covered in white sheets or blankets, ribbons etc.  The horse is led around the town accompanied by attendants and a unique singing contest, for want of a better description, begins.  People in the pub sing first, then Mari Lwyd revellers respond, building crescendo and then finally the Mari Lloyd is led into the pub or house and wine and food consumed.

Much merrymaking and dancing took place throughout the Christmas period and some of the traditional dances had some very unusual names.  One in particular is called Dargason, an old country dance of Wales, thought to be in existence before the reformation.

25 December – Christ’s Mass – Christmas Day

Plygain or Plygan or Crowing of the Cock – Welsh Tradition –  Thomas Pennant (1726 – 1798) born in Downing, Flintshire, wrote A Tour of Wales in which he writes about the custom of Plygain; singing by candlelight before dawn on Christmas Day, usually starting at around 3am until the break of dawn, in the late eighteenth century.

 Those who are born Christmas Day, cannot see spirits.

26 December –  St Stephen  – Boxing Day – Christmas Boxing Day

It is said that Boxing day stems from annual donations at Christmas when the Christians copied the polytheists of Rome at the changeover of the religion to Christianity.

It was customary to give servants a ‘Christmas Box’ at the end of the year and various tradesmen too.

My great-great-great uncle, William Tayler, was a footman in London.  In order to improve his handwriting it was suggested that he kept a diary for a year, which he did whilst employed by a lady in the city. His entry for 26th December 1837 writes about the numerous people going from house to house gathering their Christmas boxes.  Such were sweeps, beadles, lamplighters, waterman, dustmen, scavengers (people who clean mud out of the streets), newspaper boy, general postman, twopenny postman and waits – these are men that go about the streets playing music in the night.  All these people expect to have a shilling or half a crown each.  William himself received half a sovereign from his mistress for his Christmas box, he also received half a crown from a tradesman, another gave him a shilling.

28 December – Holy Innocents Day  or Childermass

This day commemorates the massacre of the innocents, when all boys aged 2 or under, in Bethlehem, were slaughtered on the command of King Herod.  The day was considered to be unlucky in most Christian countries and it was considered ‘not good to put on a  new sute, pare ones nailes, or begin anything on childermas Day (Melton 1620)   Other superstitions were that you shouldn’t wash on this day, or wash anything eg clothes or even dishes, as you would wash away your good luck for the year.

Christmas Food

I came across Katt Pies (not made with our furry friends I hasten to add) but made apparently by a baker called Mr Katt in Narberth some centuries past, or, were they a derivation of the pies served in the KitKat club in London?  Me thinks the former is more likely, but these pies, as tradition has it, were served up on November 12 at Templeton Fair and made originally with mutton and were probably the local equivalent of mince-meat, which was made at that time with either beef or mutton, dried fruit, suet, apples, spices, probably honey (before treacle and sugar came along) and a good dousing of brandy or sack! I made these pies recently, using minced lamb, but would recommend using mutton as it will probably give more flavour and a better texture!  Not too sure about the sugar content, but you’ve got to try them once haven’t you!   The pies were traditionally oval in shape and another legend has it that they were made in this manner to represent Christ’s crib in the manger!  So nothing new about celebrating Christmas a little early then?

Trevine Fair in Pembrokeshire celebrated with a lamb and leek pie on St Martin’s day, a feast day held on 11th November and referred to as Martinmass.   Beef cattle in particular were slaughtered at this time and called Martlemass Beef.  Nowadays, St Martin’s Day has disappeared into history and we acknowledge 11th November as Remembrance Sunday.  Cattle and some sheep etc were often killed in November and the meat salted to last the winter – with little feed available during the winter months, it was better to kill animals in prime condition and make the most of plentiful meat at this time).  Katt & Trevine Pies were probably welcome fare for the agricultural worker/drover on these special days and provided them with a ‘takeaway’ meal literally on the hoof!

Tradition also has it that a mince-meat pie should be eaten every day for the 12 days of Christmas to bring luck!  It was also suggested some 200 years ago, that these pies were also good served all year round!

As many mince pies as you taste at Christmas, so many happy months will you have.

As December was considered to be a rather melancholy month and Phelgm much on the increase, it was important to keep heads and bodies from the cold and to eat and drink items of a hot quality.  In England a broth of Coleworts and Onions was considered very good, and happening upon the word Kawl in a book of 1668, it was according to Edward Lloyd, a Welshman studying at Oxford, ‘a word that runs through many languages or dialects and is nothing but the Latin Caulis a synoynyme of Brassica, called thence Colewort’  – today we would call it Crambe, but prefer to use our modern cabbage today when making cawl, or maybe not!

Edward Lloyd also gives the Welsh word Ming for the English Word Midden or dung heap, so when you hear people say things are ‘minging’, tis a very old expression indeed!

Other foods for December were roasted onions, plain or in sauce.

Onion’s skin very thin, mild winter coming in; onion’s skin thick and tough, coming winter cold & rough.

Roasted apples and pears served after meat were recommended, along with the flesh of wethers (castrated rams), rams and goats.  Capons and other land fowl were considered very wholesome at the time 1670s, but waterfowl eg mallard etc were not to be recommended.  Wine was considered an essential part of the diet and according to one Richard Saunders of the time, honey, cinnamon, mace, nutmegs, ginger, grains, cloves, galingale should be eaten or drunk this month ‘do cherish the blood, the heart and all the body’.  (Galingale is sedge of the genus Cyperus,so called for their aromoatic rhizomes).

Roast Beef was the staple of Christmas Past, Turkey a modern alternative – well for the last 300 plus years!  It is interesting to note that in menus for December in the early 1800s, Turkey is not mentioned, but Roast Turkey is recommended fare for both November and January – perhaps for 12th Night and Thanksgiving, the original Christmas Day falling upon 6th January.  Turkey seems to have become popular in Victorian times and apparently even more so from the 1950s onwards.  Perhaps because Turkey was expensive to produce (Turkeys, like sheep, could die at the drop of a hat) in the past, Turkey, like Chicken was seen as a luxurious food – both these meats were very expensive until recent times and I remember as a child that a roast chicken for Sunday Lunch was a very rare thing indeed!

According to The Order of a Modern Bill of Fare for December by Hannah Glasse,  (1805), one could serve the following dishes:

First Course

Chickens.         Cod’s Head      Stewed Beef     Bricandau of Veal          Almond Pudding

Soug Santea     Calves Feet Pie                        Fillet of Pork with sharp sauce   Chine of Lamb

Tongue             Soals fried and broiled


Second Course

Wild fowls         Lamb’s fry        Orange Puffs    Sturgeon          Gallantine         Jellies

Savoury cake   Prawns             Tartlets            Mushrooms      Partridges


Third course

Ragooed Palates          Savoy Cakes    Dutch Beef scraped      China Oranges             Lambs Tails

Half Moon         Calves Burs      Jargonel Pears                         Potted Larks     Lemon Biscuits

Fricasee of Crawfish


Toffee – or  Toughy!  Noson Gylfaith or Toffee Evening was apparently an essential part of the Christmas and New Year celebrations in North Wales up until the early part of the 20th Century.  Apparently, families would visit each other’s house to eat and drink, tell stores, sing and make toffee – pouring this from the pan on to the hearth and then when cooled, it was pulled by ‘buttered hands’ into twisted curls!

I made some toffee using a Welsh recipe using half syrup (not available until mid-19th Century) and half treacle!  No buttered hands, left it too long to cool and had to break using a hammer!  Watch your teeth!

Plum pottage was probably the forerunner of plum pudding, a beef-based broth made with dried fruit, spices and bread crumbs.  A whole leg of beef was used, so producing copious quantities to feed large households during the Christmas Festivities!  Very often the pottage received ‘additional’ ingredients to extend its life and provide for additional mouths to feed!


Happy Christmas and Happy Eating!