Singing from the Back Row II: Yr Hen Galan

By the Julian Calendar, the New Year begins on the 13th of January (Gregorian calendar date).  This is not to be confused with the beginning of Julius Caesarthe Celtic year Calan Gaeaf (Samhain in Gaelic) on November 1st. In 45BC, Julius Caesar along with his advisor, Sosigenes, Greek astronomer and tutor to Cleopatra, agreed that the old Roman Calendar was severely out of sync with the physical evidence of the changing seasons and phases of the moon. Sosigenes’s calculations resulted in the Julian Calendar which remained in use for 1627 years.

By 1582, the Julian Calendar had become out of sync by as much as 10 days. The principal concerns were the vernal equinox, Passover and the date on which Easter was to be celebrated. Maintaining the link to the Jewish Passover was essential. On October 5th, 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed the adoption of the new calendar. The 5th of October became the 15th, 10 days were lost. (Anyone celebrating their birthday between those dates in 1582 was a year younger in subsequent years.)

The new calendar system was adopted immediately in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Poland. France and Luxembourg followed shortly thereafter. By 1587, most countries of continental Europe had accepted the new dates with the exceptions of Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands. These countries made the transition between 1699 and 1701.

In 1752, in the countries of Britain and in its global colonies, people born between September 4th and September 14th missed celebrating their birthdays when the Gregorian Calendar was accepted – with one rural exception.

Hel Calennig gydag Afalau

Boys with their Calennig Apples

On the edge of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, approximately 5.3 miles east of Fishguard along the B4313 and Route 82, is Cwm Gwaun. This small pocket of rural Wales has rejected the Gregorian Calendar and, for the past 430 (or 260 if you count only from 1752) years, this valley community has celebrated the New Year according to the Julian Calendar. By today’s reckoning, on the 13th of January – Yr Hen Galan (the old new year). This annual event includes children singing traditional songs and making up their own words to old traditional tunes. It is also the time for Hel Calennig – an opportunity for children to extort money from neighbors and relations.

Mi godais heddiw ma’s o’m tŷ
A’m cwd a’m pastwn gyda mi,
A dyma’m neges ar eich traws,
Sef llanw’m cwd â bara a chaws.

(I left my house today
With my bag and my stick,
And here is my message to you,
Fill my bag with bread and cheese.)

The Dyffryn Arms, run by Bessie Davies for over 40 years, is the center of the adults’ celebrations. The Dyffryn Arms has played an essential role in keeping Yr Hen Galan alive into the 21st Century. At the beginning of this third millennium, residents of Cwm Gwaun, ‘the calendar rebels’ celebrated along with the rest of us but doubled their fun with a second party on 2000-01-13. Although Yr Hen Galan is officially celebrated in this community there are others in Wales which have privately organized community celebrations and there are individuals and family groups who also enjoy this unique festival.

Mari Lwyd of OldThe Mari Lwyd (Gray Mare/Holy Mary) was an integral part of the event. The skull of a horse is mounted on a pole (or a man) and draped with a white sheet. Ribbons, bells and flowers decorate the Mari and this is carried through the village by the wassail-singing group of men. At each house, the men call out the owner with taunting verses and the opponents debate. If the owner is unable to respond with a verse (and this is usually the case because it is, after all, a neighborly entertainment), the Mari Lwyd and her entourage is invited in for food and drink. More singing and wassailing ensues until the Mari Lwyd group moves on to the next obliging neighbor.

Noson Gyflaith (Toffee Evening) is another traditional event at this time of year. In my husband’s family, this frequently ended in Pulling Toffee / Tynnu Cyflaithdisappointment when the toffee pulling had less than outstanding results. Everyone had a hand in the pulling process once the ingredients were brought to exactly the right temperature and consistency. The hot toffee was poured onto a slate slab and the pulling began when members of the family and friends were gathered. A lot of talking and laughing were the most successful result, especially if the toffee never hardened.



Filed under Cymraeg/Welsh Language, Cymreig/Welsh, Cymru/Wales, Hanes Cymru/Welsh History, Y Cymry/Welsh People

11 responses to “Singing from the Back Row II: Yr Hen Galan

  1. Very interesting. I love hearing about all these different traditions for holidays. I wish our tradition (as a country/culture) was more than the christmas shopping frenzy and getting drunk on new year.


    • The shopping frenzy is unavoidable, no matter where we are. As an antidote, I’ve always read “A Visit from St. Nicholas” to my children – part of our family tradition. This was the first year since 1985 I’ve spent Christmas in the States. Here, I think the opportunity to commercialize a religious celebration is entrenched. I’m not fond of the way New Year’s is celebrated in bars either. Calennig and Mari Lwyd bring the community together. Unfortunately, these are also disappearing.


  2. I love that word cwm. Makes me think of Everest as well as Wales. Remote places that spark one’s fantasy. Glad you mentioned the gray mare. What a wondeful tradition. Thanks for sharing it with us.


    • You’re welcome. Cwm is one of those words that has been adopted into the English language (as ‘coombe’) and made less pronounceable than the Welsh. After my first visit to Wales, I was swept away. The reality is better than the fantasy!


  3. Thank you. That was very interesting.


  4. How interesting. I enjoy learning about how different cultures celebrate holidays. I have some relatives in Wales, but I don’t know where. The Russian Orthodox Church still follows the Julian calendar, so they are celebrating Christmas today.


    • If you have relatives in Wales, Ally, you can be sure they know you! One of the most popular entertainments when you first meet someone is to discover how you are related. I call it the Welsh Pedigree. I had no idea that my paternal grandmother was Welsh until I met my husband. His interest in the Welsh-American composer, Joseph Parry, whose family emigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1850s led me to investigate her history. Until then, my family thought she was ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’.


  5. This is fascinating! Thanks for sharing!


  6. Pingback: Bessie davies | Imagearmy

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