While the revival of raucous ‘pwnco’ singing rituals and the reemergence of the macabre spectacle of the Mari Lwyd in villages and towns across Wales has understandably stolen the limelight in recent years, the simpler New Year’s Day Welsh custom of Calennig has perhaps passed below the radar.

Yet for at least two hundred years, and according to one historian of the ritual year in Britain 'since ancient times’, New Year’s Day in the rural areas of the southern half of Wales was characterised by door-knocking children bearing fruit and performing traditional rhymes in the hope that they might be given gifts of money or sweets.

Some would also carry jugs of water, used to splash householders in a ritual that in common with so many new year traditions across the world was intended to bring good luck to recipients. 

The National Wales: Apples are a central feature of traditional Calennig New Year's celebrations in Wales. Photo: Amgueddfa CymruApples are a central feature of traditional Calennig New Year's celebrations in Wales. Photo: Amgueddfa Cymru

Across Britain, the practise of ‘first-footing’, passing between neighbours with a new year greeting, was common practice – and superstitions held that the person you saw first on January 1st (or the 13th in the Gwaun valley, which famously held fast to the Julian calendar, which had been phased out by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582) – carried a portent for the remainder of the year.

The word ‘calennig’ itself derives from the Latin ‘kalends’, in which the English word ‘calendar’ also has its root, and simply means ‘the first day of the month’.

And yet ‘calennig’ in Welsh, rather than denoting New Year’s Day itself, or the custom associated with it, instead points to the fruit at its heart.

In his book Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (2001), Ronald Hutton describes ‘an apple or an orange, resting on three sticks like a tripod, smeared with flour, stuck with nuts, oats or wheat, topped with thyme or another fragrant herb, and held by a skewer.’ 

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Hutton’s description echoes that of Jacqueline Simpson in Folklore of the Welsh Border (1976), in which the author notes that oranges were sometimes decorated with ‘holly, tinsel, raisins, gold and silver glitter’, suggestive of a crossover with the ‘Christingle’ – a Christian tradition popularised in the UK in 1968 by a fundraising drive for The Children’s Society, but which itself traced roots in the German Moravian church, one of the earliest forms of Protestantism.

It has also been posited that an orange stuck with rosemary and cloves is a remembrance of the gifts of the Magi to the Christ-child. Like gold, frankincense and myrrh, they represented wealth, sweetness and immortality – and therefore like so many folk customs in Wales whose origins are uncertain, Calennig appears to mix Christian and pre-Christian traditions.

Whatever its origin might have been, in what seems to have been its nineteenth century heyday, the Calennig was much more likely to have been an apple. 

The National Wales: Calennig apples - A Welsh New Year tradition. Photo: giveawayboy/flickrCalennig apples - A Welsh New Year tradition. Photo: giveawayboy/flickr

One interesting feature of the geographical spread of the practice, particularly in light of recent debates about Welshness and the English border is its prevalence in south west Shropshire – where it took a similar form to that in the old Welsh counties of Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire, Radnorshire and Glamorgan – as well as in Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, where the apple does not appear to have been an integral part of the custom.

However, one written record dating from 1822 is an article in Gentleman’s Magazine detailing instances of the Herefordshire peasantry marking the New Year by creating ‘a small pyramid made of leaves, apples, nuts etc., gilt in hope of receiving gifts in exchange for the luck this conferred’.

In the Monmouthshire border area where the Wye Valley meets the Forest of Dean, a similar custom involves calling the decorated apple the ‘Monty’, with the doorstep rhyme recorded as: ‘Monty, Monty, happy new year, a pocket full of money, and a cellar full of beer’. 

The suggestion here is that the occasion was to be enjoyed by both children and adults, and the modern day association of New Year celebrations with heavy drinking find another expression in a book by the Newport writer and teacher Fred Hando, still fondly remembered in the city for his 795 articles in the our sister title, South Wales Argus, written across nearly half a century between 1922 and the week of his death in 1970.

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In his book The Pleasant Land of Gwent (1944), Hando quoted his friend, the author and mystic, Arthur Machen, who was then in his final years, recalling the Calenning tradition as it played out in his Caerleon boyhood in the 1860s and 1870s. 

‘The town children got the biggest and bravest and gayest apple they could find in the loft,’ Machen recalled. ‘They put bits of gold leaf upon it. They stuck raisins into it. They inserted into the apple little sprigs of box, and they delicately slit the ends of hazelnuts, and so worked that the nuts appeared to grow from the ends of the holly leaves.’

As well as noting that the Calennig would then be ‘borne from house to house’ where ‘children got cakes and sweets’, he also says ‘these were wild days [with] small cups of ale’.

The decline of the tradition is as scantily documented as its rise, with one notable piece of evidence featuring in an archive of documents collected by a local historian of Ceredigion, the late Donald Davies. In Those Were The Days (1936) it is noted that: ‘Lately the carrying of an apple has been discontinued and only the recitation of brief verses or greetings and the collection of new pennies mark the custom in those districts where it has survived.’  

An internet reference to just five children in Llanrhystud carrying on the tradition in 2003 is perhaps evidence that the custom has by now all but died out as a ritual practice, but the celebration has recently taken on new life in the name not only of Cardiff’s New Year fireworks and lantern parade but – perhaps fittingly – a Brains festive ale, spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger.

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