Celebrating the New Year in medieval Wales - Sarah Woodbury

Celebrating the New Year in medieval Wales

Celebrating the New Year dates back to Babylon, 4000 years ago.  The date was celebrated on March 23, which coincides with the Persian, Muslim, and Baha’i New Year at the Spring Solstice.

“The Romans continued to observe the new year on March 25, but their calendar was continually tampered with by various emperors so that the calendar soon became out of synchronization with the sun.

In order to set the calendar right, the Roman senate, in 153 BC, declared January 1 to be the beginning of the new year. But tampering continued until Julius Caesar, in 46 BC, established what was come to be known as the Julian Calendar. It again established January 1 as the new year. But in order to synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year drag on for 445 days.

Although in the first centuries AD the Romans continued celebrating the new year, the early Catholic Church condemned the festivities as paganism. But as Christianity became more widespread, the early church began having its own religious observances concurrently with many of the pagan celebrations, and New Year’s Day was no different. New Years is still observed as the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision by some denominations.

During the Middle Ages, the Church remained opposed to celebrating New Years.” http://adoptionworld.org/kid/newyear.html

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t celebrated, however, particularly in Wales, where the Roman/pagan history was less overridden than in Saxon England.  In Wales, the New Year was celebrated on November first as Calan Gaeaf. There, it went hand in hand with Nos Galan Gaeaf, what eventually became our Halloween, time time when the veil between this world and the next one thinned. One aspect was a tradition of Mari Lwyd, the Grey Mare.  It is possibly derived from the worship of the Goddess, Rhiannon, “It is a form of visiting wassail, a luck-bringing ritual in which a the participants accompany a person disguised as a horse from house to house (including pubs) and sing at each door in the hope of gaining admittance and being rewarded with food and drink.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mari_Lwyd

“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.  Gangs of men and young boys would carry the Mari Lwyd from door to door. They had usually consumed copious amounts of alcohol and the procession would be accompanied by a growling cacophony of noise.

When a door was opened the householder would be assailed by poems and insults and to this they were expected to reply in like form. When the verbal battle had been won or lost the Mari Lwyd and her followers were invited inside for yet another drink …

Calennig is another Welsh custom that died out at the end of the 19th century. From dawn until dusk on 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.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/waleshistory/2010/12/welsh_christmas_new_year_traditions.html

“The giving of gifts on New Year’s Day is an ancient custom. In Wales it took the form of collecting calennig (New Year’s Gift). Children would form groups and go from house to house, bearing good wishes for the health and prosperity of the family during the year to come. This was symbolised by the skewered apples, stuck with corn and sprigs of evergreen, which they carried in their hands. Verses were sung at the door of the house, and they would receive small gifts of food or money for their troubles.”  http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/faq/calennig/


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