A weird and wonderful Welsh Christmas!

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Every month the library team curates a new display for visitors and everyone who uses the library, highlighting the many wonderful collections we have on our shelves. This month, Intern Elspeth Brodie-Browne reflects on our final display of 2017, co-curated with Intern Katie Ruffley, all about the many Christmas traditions here in Wales... 

Christmas is a wonderful time of year and it’s personal to everybody. Every family has its own Christmas traditions – my own includes my sister (7 years older than myself, I feel it is important to add!) waking me up with a glass of water to the face at an ungodly hour each year. Our Swiss intern Shi’s family are much more civilised and all sing Christmas Carols around the tree before opening presents, while our current Chaplain John has filled me in on the bizarre American tradition where a pickle is hidden somewhere in the house and the person who finds it wins a prize.

With this in mind I wanted to get an idea of what Christmas in a Welsh village such as Hawarden might have been like during Gladstone’s lifetime, and I uncovered a hoard of weird and wonderful Welsh Christmas traditions in the process!

For instance, to start off Christmas day carol singers would come to your door between the hours of three and six in the morning (not so sad to see the back of that particular tradition)! A wren would be released so a party of boys named ‘Wren Hunters’ could then attempt to catch it, put it in a wooden cage and show it off to all the families in the village. And, if you were unlucky enough to be the last one out of bed on Boxing Day, understandably tired from chasing small birds and early carolling, you were beaten with holly sprigs!

Though these traditions are brilliant, my favourite by far is the Mari Lwyd (which I am glad to say is being revived in some parts of Wales!). This is perhaps the strangest of them all. It involved taking a horse’s skull, attaching it to a pole and draping a white sheet over to create a kind of ghostly body. The skull itself would then be decorated with ribbons and bells. The finished Mari Lwyd was paraded through the village where the residents would be challenged by the party to a battle of Welsh verse!

While I can’t imagine Gladstone himself attaching bells to a horse’s skull and improvising Welsh poetry (mainly because of the six languages he spoke, Welsh was not one of them) it is nice to think of the view he might have had from the window of the 'Temple of Peace’…

While researching the display, I came across many books in our superb collection that, if you are lucky enough to be visiting the library over the festive period, you should definitely spare the time to take a look at.

A Gladstone’s Library Christmas Reading List:

Carols Before Dawn and other Welsh Christmases by Patrick Thomas (I 85 / 121)

Christmas: A Social History by Mark Connelly (U 40 / 25)

A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas (R 39 Th / 14)

Victorian Gothic by Rosemary Mitchell & Karen Sayer (U 41 / 6)

Hay and Stardust: Resources for Christmas to Candlemas by Ruth Burgess (G 11 / 119)

Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens (R 36 D / 2e)

Ancient English Christmas Carols by Edith Rickert (G 43 a / 75) 

The display will be up until the Reading Rooms close for Christmas at 5pm on Monday, 18th December! The Reading Rooms will reopen at 9am on Tuesday, 3rd January 2018 when a brand new display by our fabulous intern Katie will be waiting ….

 By Elspeth Brodie-Browne, Intern