The tradition of “first footing” was always important in Wales, a dark-haired man should let in the New Year for good luck. The man leaves the house by the back door just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, walks around and on the strike of midnight, knocks on the front door. The householder opens the door and receives salt for seasoning, silver for wealth, coal for warmth, a match for kindling and bread for sustenance from him. If the first visitor across a Welsh threshold was either a woman or a red haired man it was considered terribly unlucky for the household.
Another important Welsh tradition in the Victorian Age was to never lend anything on New Year’s Day. A person’s behaviour on that day was usually considered to be an indication of the way they would conduct themselves for the rest of the year.
The most renowned pre-Christian custom of the New Year traditions in Wales was that of the Mari Lwyd, the phrase meaning the Grey Mare. The Mari Lwyd was a horse’s skull covered with a white sheet and ribbons. It had false ears and eyes and was carried on a long pole covered in a sheet and decorated with ribbons.
Gangs of men and youths would carry the Mari Lwyd from door to door. When a door was opened the householder was greeted with poems and insults – in Welsh – and they were expected to reply. When the verbal battle, y pwnco, had been won or lost the Mari Lwyd and her followers were invited inside for another drink.
In the 19th century the churches and chapels began to object to the violence and drunkenness that invariably accompanied a visit from the Mari Lwyd and gradually, the singing of carols began to replace the poems and insults.
Calennig is another New Year custom, from dawn 1 January small parties of boys would pass from house to house in the village or town, carrying twigs of evergreen plants and cups or jugs of water. They would use the twigs to splash water at people and, in return, would receive the calennig – small copper coins.
Other historic references have them carrying three-legged totems and chanting rhymes. The custom, in various forms, survived in some areas well after World War Two, at least in the form of the chanting of a small verse or two in exchange for small coins
Christmas, of course, did not end until Twelfth Night and in Wales the custom of hunting the wren was something that took place on this last night of festivities. Men would catch a wren, put it in a wooden box and carry it from door to door. Householders would then pay a penny for the privilege of lifting the lid of the box in an attempt to see the tiny bird. If a wren could not be caught sometimes a sparrow was used in its place.
We wish you all a happy and healthy New Year and hope you will come to visit us here in Wales!