Tag Archives: Christmas

Eat, Drink, and be Fairy!

I know it’s been a while since my last post, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’ve dropped off the face of the stacks – always a potential hazard given my ladder climbing skills. However fear not, the ladder is still in one piece. The real reason for my online silence of late is not because I have been trapped under an avalanche of books or lost in the valley of incunabula, I have, rather… been away with the fairies.

‘Tis true! While it may not be quite a year and a day since my last post, for the last couple of months I have been caught up in my own little fairy circle, combing the collections for materials for this year’s  Autumn Exhibition’:

What the devil is all this about then, you may ask? Well, it’s less about the devil and more about those ambiguous beings who are often tarred with the same brimstone brush – the fairies, or the ‘tylwyth teg’ (the fair family) as they are commonly known in Wales.

In south Wales the common term for the fairies is Bendith eu Mamau (Their Mothers’ Blessing), so-called because of their blessing, or bringing good luck to those whom they favoured or showed them kindness. If they were offended or mistreated by humans then they would inflict various punishments, some quite severe, and they reputedly stole new born babies from their cradles and replaced them with their own ugly offspring known as changelings.

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Hugh Evans, Y Tylwyth Teg, (Liverpool, 1935. Illustration of the fairies stealing a baby, by T. J. Bond.

Fairies were believed to be secretive people who lived in caves, hollows, or ‘sepulchral mounds’, with supernatural powers that enabled them to hear what was spoken in the air and whisk people away on otherworld adventures. The popular belief was that the fairies had whisked the clergyman and poet Ellis Wynne (1671-1734) to the top of Moelfre Mountain and taken him on a supernatural journey through the world. This belief was expressed by the Bard himself, who described how they ‘lifted me on [to their] shoulders, like [a] knight; and away we went like the wind over houses and territories, towns and kingdoms, and seas and mountains’.

This supernatural stigma and secretive lifestyle no doubt stemmed from their somewhat shady origins. Some believed they were the souls of Druids who, not being able to enter heaven and too good to be cast into hell, were condemned to exist in limbo. Scottish fairy-lore also sees the fairies as followers of the devil who tried to get into heaven when they saw hell, but found the gates locked and so they settled in the mounds between heaven and hell.

Interestingly, in Welsh folklore Gwyn ap Nudd, a mythical and slightly magical figure from medieval Welsh literature, is regarded as the King of the Fairies and ruler of Annwn – the ‘otherworld’. Indeed, many Welsh observers believed fairies to be spirits or demons with supernatural powers. The Puritan Charles Edwards (1628-1691) describes them as neighbourly ‘devils’ who appeared as a ‘visible troop’ to drag people away to their merriments, while Edmund Jones (1703-1793) was also convinced that fairies were ‘evil Spirits belonging to the Kingdom of Darkness’, while others regarded them as apparitions or spirits of the dead  who were conjured by magical practitioners or cunning-folk.

These themes, and many more are explored in our current exhibition – Neighbourly Devils which runs until the end of March 2018. Ok, I’ll admit this may not be quite the jolly-festive post you were expecting at this time of year, but fear not, I have it on good authority (that of the Reverend and antiquarian Elias Owen, 1833-1899 to be precise), that no evil spirit can appear on Christmas Eve.

Besides, there is another jingle to these fairy bells, for these mischievous folk were also very fond of a good old knees up and a sing-song, and not just for Christmas. They were known to have an enchanting, musical voice that was designed to steal people away with them. This so happened to a farmer’s daughter named Shui Rhys, who was so captivated by the fairies who ‘talked to her in a language to beautiful to be repeated’, that she was eventually ‘carried off’ with them, never to be seen again.  Tales of fairy circles and their love of dancing and colourful dress are rife in Welsh folklore. Edmund Jones the ‘Old Prophet’ of Pontypool, recorded many instances where fairies were seen dancing and prancing about in their unique attire.  Rees John Rosser, for example, heard fine music coming from near his barn and saw a large company come into the floor of the barn with striped clothes, ‘and there danced to their music’, while a young girl of Trevethin on hearing their pleasant music went to dance with them, and described how they were dressed in ‘blue and green aprons’.

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Wirt Sikes, British Goblins: Welsh folklore, fairy mythology, legends and traditions, (London, 1880), illustration of Shui Rhys and the fairies, by T. H. THomas.

Such good fairy cheer does indeed put me in mind of other Welsh Christmas and New Year traditions, such as the plygain – the traditional carol service sung at dawn on Christmas morning, while in the run-up to the service people would gather to decorate the house and sing and dance to harp music. Or the Mari Llwyd (strangely, I know, but listen up) since this famous New Year custom which was prevalent in south Wales, involves a horse’s skull draped in a white sheet and decorated with ribbons and bells which is then carried by a group of men around the local area where they seek to gain entry into the houses through the medium of song or rhyme. The householder is expected to deny entry, also through song, and so this repartee continues until the Mari Llwyd is granted entry and the group are given food and drink. Such was one way to ‘see the Old Year out and the New Year in’. Others marked the occasion, very much like the tylwyth teg, by singing and dancing all night, some by drinking and feasting – some things never change eh?! Staying with the singing for just a note longer, yet another tradition which has since died out was that of the Apple Gift, where children would go from door to door on New Year’s Day bearing apples or oranges curiously decorated, and singing good wishes for the New Year in the hope of receiving some monetary gifts.

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Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (1880). New Year Apple gift, illustration by T. H. Thomas.

And just as the fairies appreciated a little food or drink left out for their visits, I mean who doesn’t (yes, we know that mince pie and shot of whisky is not really meant for Santa), these customs were often designed to ensure a little good luck for the coming year, as well as having a good old jig! And so the moral of this blog post is, well, it’s quite simple really – eat, drink, and remember to be fairy responsible.

So from all of us here at Special Collections and Archives, a fairy Merry Christmas and a Happy New Apple to you all.

 

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Christmas and Lemon

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As I sit here opposite our softly lit Christmas tree and roaring fire (*disclaimer: of course, we have no fire, I’ve just written that for atmospheric purposes), it has occurred to me that despite the plethora of materials that we have here in Special Collections, I have been unable to locate any (on) mulled-wine. This has rather stifled the jingle in my book-bells, for what can I bring to the blog besides a turkey at this time of year?

I could follow tradition. Of peace, and earth, we have many a volume, and no doubt you will find something on the nature of good-will and all manner of ‘recipes’ – medical, cosmetic, culinary, even vegetable dyes, though none so far as I can see, on how to make your own Irish-cream. The bilingual guide for making temperance drinks failed to impress! Something more… festive is needed.

My thoughts turn to the Plygain, the traditional Welsh Christmas service where ‘carolau plygain’ are sung, traditionally by men, in church in the very early hours of Christmas morning. In rural areas, this custom involved gathering in a local farmhouse to make a ‘Cyflaith’ – a treacle toffee, while decorating the house with mistletoe and holly, accompanied by singing and dancing to the harp until dawn.

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Singing and dancing to the harp, Peter Roberts, The Cambrian popular antiquities, (London, 1815).

But isn’t it nice to break with tradition sometimes? No sooner had this thought crossed my mind, down the chimney comes Helen, our multi-skilled Welsh Librarian and Cataloguer, with some ‘gifts’ for our collection. I notice a thick volume entitled ‘The Welsh at Home’. But all is not what it seems. As I open the book it’s as if the ghost of Christmas past is blowing the pages so that I may take a different view. This caught my eye:

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William Johnstone, The Welsh at Home, (Cardiff, 1904).

Behold my festive muse! Christmas Evans was one of Wales’s most charismatic preachers, his early life however, is just as remarkable. Born on Christmas day, 1766, His father, Samuel Evans, was a shoe-maker and his mother, Joanna, was related the respectable Lewis family who were freeholders in the parish of Llandysul, Cardiganshire. The Evans’s were poor, nonetheless, a situation exacerbated by the death of Christmas’s father when he was a young child. His uncle, James Lewis, took Christmas to live with him on his farm, but was a drunk, and cruel man. Christmas would say of him years later, ‘it would be difficult to find a more unconscionable man… in the whole course of a wicked world’.

Consequently, he had very little education and by seventeen was unable to read. Around this time, in the throes of religious awakening generally, Christmas started attending the local Presbyterian meetings where he learnt to read the Bible in Welsh. Some of his Lewis relatives also lent him ‘many good books’ which introduced him to the works of English authors. He also studied Latin under the Rev. David Davies, but it was largely through his own drive that Christmas became a proficient reader in several languages, including a little Greek and Hebrew.

His youth was also extremely hazardous and it is a miracle that he survived it at all. ‘When I was around nine years old’ he recalls, ‘I climbed up a rather tall tree, with a knife in my hand’. The bough gave way under him, and he fell to the ground, knife in hand. ‘There I lay unconscious until some people happened to see me later in the afternoon’. He almost drowned after a banking gave way besides a flooded pool, and on another occasion a horse he mounted galloped off ‘until the earth was trembling underneath’. The horse turned into its stables ‘but instead of knocking my brains out on the lintel, fate intervened on my part’, he says.

And not for the first time, for Christmas was also stabbed in the chest by another farm labourer, and his most telling injury occurred some years later, as he was contemplating giving up his spiritual calling. He was set upon by five or six men who beat him so badly, one with a stick, that he lost his eye instantly. As he lay dying, Christmas describes a dream he had of the final judgement, and how when he awoke, he became determined to follow his spiritual calling. Soon after, he was baptised and began his illustrious preaching ministry.

On a cold and snowy Christmas day in 1792, he and his wife Catherine set off for Anglesey on his faithful white mare, Lemon, to take charge of the Anglesey Baptists at Llangefni. It was the first of many journeys that Christmas and Lemon would make from North to South Wales to raise money for his chapels. He would preach every day, three times on a Sunday, and always mindful of his chapel debts, paid no heed to his thread-bare clothes. However, on one occasion Catherine, noticing the shabby condition of his hat, managed to get him a new one. When Christmas returned home from another long and arduous journey on his trusty mare, Catherine was mortified to see his new hat in a worse condition than the old! It just so happened that on the way home the old mare was thirsty, and on approaching a stream where there was no trough or house, or inn, Christmas filled his hat so that Lemon could drink! A mark of his sincerity that served all his ministries, for he left Anglesey in 1826 and served at Caerphilly from 1826-28, and then Cardiff from 1828-32, raising hundreds of pounds for his chapels in the course of his travels on the sturdy back of the lovely Lemon.

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Portrait of Christmas Evans, G. W. Morgan, Cofiant neu Hanes Bywyd y diweddar Barch. Christmas Evans, (Wrexham, 1883).

Christmas Evans was one of the greatest preachers that Wales has ever produced, and the volume of sermons and allegories that he has left behind reflect his intelligence and imagination. Yet it is the feats of his younger self, as well as his topical name, which inspired me to break with Christmas tradition and pay attention to this impressive figure.  And so the moral of this blog post is, even if you’ve got just one eye for books, you’re vision will be infinite.  Let’s hope for some interesting paperbacks stuffed in our stockings this year. Merry Christmas Evans and Lemon from all of us here at Special Collections and Archives, and a Happy New Year to you!

A Christmas Robin from John Gould’s “Birds of Great Britain”

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The European robin (Erithacus rubecula), affectionately known as the robin redbreast for its distinctive colouring, has been strongly associated with Christmas since the mid-19th century. The most common explanation is that the postmen who delivered cards and presents in Victorian Britain wore scarlet uniforms and were nicknamed “robins” or “redbreasts” after the birds. The robin itself was eventually depicted on Christmas cards to represent the postman who delivered them, which is why the bird is so often shown holding an envelope or sitting on a postbox.

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These illustrations come from our magnificent copy of John Gould’s Birds of Great Britain, published between 1861 and 1873. All 367 lithographs in this monumental five-volume work were hand-coloured; in his introduction to the book, Gould writes: “every sky with its varied tints and every feather of each bird were coloured by hand; and when it is considered that nearly two hundred and eighty thousand illustrations in the present work have been so treated, it will most likely cause some astonishment to those who give the subject a thought”.