LIKE so much of Wales, Tenby and Pembrokeshire have more than their fair share of seasonal traditions.
Plygain, meaning ‘morning light’ was a traditional religious service held in the local Parish Church, at 3am on Christmas morning to watch the daybreak and commemorate the birth of Christianity and the coming of Christ. In Tenby, lighted torches were carried through the streets by a procession escorting the rector, cow-horns were blown around the streets, verses sung, bells chimed and windows of houses were decorated by evergreens. The service attracted large crowds, but unfortunately, disorder brought about by men under the influence of alcohol put an end to the Plygain in some places.
After the morning service, the day was devoted to pleasure, including hunting hare, woodcock and especially the squirrel. Games of football were played and old quarrels ended.
Christmas was also an important time for romance and certainly women should kiss and be kissed. A single woman should place a sprig of mistletoe over the chair in which her intended sits. When he is under the mistletoe she must kiss him suddenly, and if she succeeds, she may claim from him a new pair of gloves. It was once thought that if a maiden missed being kissed under the mistletoe on Christmas, she would also miss her chance of marriage during the following twelve months.
However, the romance was short lived because just a day later, on December 26, St Stephens Day, was to be a somewhat frightening day for young women in the area who would be subject to a furious onslaught by men and boys armed with large branches of prickly holly. Female domestics often having short-sleeved garments, often came of rather badly as they were beaten about their bare, unprotected arms with the thorns.
The custom was said to have stemmed from the martyrdom of St Stephen and the bleeding of cattle. Fortunately, the practice died out when the police force was established.
Also round the Christmas period, the fishermen in Tenby would appoint one of their number to be the ‘Lord Mayor of Penniless Cove’. He would be covered with evergreens and wear a mask over his face and carried aloft seated on a chair. The party had flags flying, violins playing, and in front of every house the “Lord Mayor” would address the occupants by wishing them “ a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” If the good wishes were reciprocated with hard cash, the followers gave three cheers, the mayor would thank the house- hold and the crowd again gave three cheers.
Unlikely as it may seem, in Pembrokeshire it was considered good luck to rise early on New Year’s morning.
The custom of ‘letting in’ was widespread around Pembrokeshire, and although it varied from area to area, it related to the good or bad luck that might be brought in by the first visitor to the house. Before equality really started to hit home, it was considered good luck if the first human seen on New Year’s morning or first across the threshold should be a man, although not to be seen by another man. Sometimes the initials of the man could bring good luck, H for happiness or health, J for joy and R for riches.
Especially auspicious if the man should have one of four lucky names; Dafydd, Ifan, Sion or Siencyn. If not named one of these, then the first person seen might as well have been a woman! In addition, on New Year’s Day to avoid disaster, a hare or magpie must not pass in front of you before 12.00, and the cock must not crow before supper.
However, in South Pembrokeshire and Tenby it was customary to dance the New Year out. Phew, no change there then!
On New Year’s Day the children also rose early, drew water from the well which they would take from house to house in a little tin can. They took a sprig of an evergreen plant, which they would dip in the water and use to sprinkle on the hands and face of all those they met whilst singing a special song.
They would knock at the doors of houses and then one of their number would be admitted and proceed to sprinkle each room with a little of the New Year’s water. They would be given silver or copper coins for their New Year’s blessings and good wishes. Those who did not invite them in were wished a bad year and a house full of smoke!
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