Welsh Social History
Contents of this section
Folk custom and belief
Folk custom and belief
Folk customs still have an important role in the life of the countryman. In a
peasant community children were regarded as an asset and throughout the world, rejoicings
take place before or soon after birth. Certain acts were forbidden to the expectant
mother, in the belief that her behaviour would affect the unborn child. She might
not step over a grave; if she did her child would die. She might not dip her fingers
in dirty water or her child would have coarse hands and so on, superstition played
a great part in these now seemingly outlandish beliefs.
A christening was an occasion for heavy drinking by members of the family: in some
parts of mid Wales special christening glasses were used holding nearly a pint and
these were supposed to be emptied at one gulp, the object of the toast being the
mother rather than the baby.
Courtship in rural Wales was usually long and surreptitious. In the past 'bundling'
or 'courting in bed' was widely practised in country districts and this custom was
celebrated in song and poem. The man after throwing pebbles at the girl's window,
would use a ladder from the rick yard to gain admittance through an upstairs window
to the bedroom. He would leave by the same means before dawn, unseen and unheard
by the sleeping household. This promiscuity permitted by traditional methods of courtship
led to a high degree of pre-marital pregnancy, a surprising feature in a society
that regarded alcohol, gambling and 'breaking the Sabbath' as grave sins.
A common feature of courtship was the giving of love tokens such as carved wooden
spoons. Love spoons that had begun as a present made by a country worker for his
sweetheart became a vehicle for competition at the National Eisteddfod in Wales.
When a man and woman, usually after a long period of courtship, had decided to marry,
the first step was for the man to approach his father and tell him of his decision,
(a move known in Welsh as the retyddia or notyddia). If the father
approved of his son's choice, then he, with his wife, relative or close friend would
visit the bride's parents to discuss the wedding arrangements, the dowry (gwaddol)
and other matters.
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In west Wales the bride's father was expected to provide his daughter with some
furniture, household goods, cows, pigs and poultry, items that in farming are traditionally
the wife's responsibility. The man's father on the other hand was expected to grant
his son, a holding of land, hay, horses, sheep and wheat. Among the farming population
today, these arrangements are still occasionally practised, and the parents, by giving
or withholding the dowry, may be expressing approval or disapproval of the match.
When the day of the wedding was finally arranged, invitations to the function were
sent out either on a printed sheet, or more often, by word of mouth. The local 'bidder'
(y gwahoddwr) was asked to visit all the houses in the neighbourhood
and invite people to the wedding feast (y neithior) As recently as the early
years of the 20th C. the rural neighbourhood of Pontgarreg in S. Cardiganshire still
had its bidder, who was well known as a funny character, having considerable skill
in the art of composing impromptu verses. The Gwahoddwr would be attired in
clothing especially suitable for the occasion - the following was the speech of a
Gwahoddwr in Llanbadarn Fawr, Cardiganshire in 1762 quoted in Meyricks 'History
of Cardiganshire' -
'The intention of the bidder is this; with kindness and amity, with decency and liberality
for Einion Owain and Llio Ellis, he invites you to come with your good will on the
plate; bring current money; a shilling, or two, or three, or four, or five; with
cheese and butter. We invite the husband and wife, and children and man-servants
and maid-servants, from the greatest to the least. Come there early, you shall have
victuals freely, and drink cheap, stools to sit on, and fish if we can catch them;
but if not, hold us excusable; and they will attend on you when you call upon them
Old people recall the time when quaint old wedding customs were very general
through west Wales. In some localities there was sometimes the practice of having
two or more gwahoddwyr to invite to the wedding; this was especially the case when
the bride and bridegroom-elect did not reside in the same part of the country. In
such cases it was necessary to appoint two Bidders, one for the young man, and another
for the young woman, to go round the respective districts in which each of them lived.
Thus, it can be seen that the Gwahoddwr was in olden times an important go-between
- often skilled in pedigrees and family traditions. Undoubtedly these wedding customs
which have survived to the present day in some localities such as Cardiganshire and
Carmarthenshire, are very ancient origin coming down even from the time of the Druids,
proving the wisdom and knowledge of the Celtic tribal legislators in promoting wedlock
so as to increase the population of the country, to repair the losses from plague
and war. A chieftain would often assume the character of a Bidder on behalf of his
vassal and hostile clans respected his person as he went from stronghold to stronghold.
The day before the wedding was once allotted to bringing home the 'Ystafell',
or household goods and furniture of the young couple: but this custom varied in different
parts of the country. The furniture of the bride as a rule consisted of a feather
bed and bedclothes, one or two oak chests for clothes. It was customary for the bridegroom
to supply tables, chairs, a bedstead and dresser. The Welsh dresser is still to be
seen in many Welsh farmhouses and is greatly valued as a family heirloom. Consisting
of two or more stages, with the open upper compartments often decked with examples
of blue and white pottery.
In some districts the day preceding the wedding was a great time for coming together
and drinking for the benefit of the young couple. Home brewed beer was drunk on these
occasions and all the profit made was for wedding couple.
After depositing their offerings and having something to eat it was then the custom
for the young men headed by a bard, a harper or some fluent speaker to mount their
horses and ride away at full speed in the direction of the bride's house to demand
her in marriage for the bridegroom. When the bridegroom's procession halted at the
house of the bride's parents they would find the door barred.
The damping influence of the Methodist revival did away with many of the old wedding
customs. The concealment of the bride, and the pursuit by the young men (y gwyr
shigowts) of the bride and groom to and from church had disappeared by the middle
of the 19th C. Such customs as prevail, for example, the throwing of confetti and
rice, and the tying of old boots and horseshoes to the wedding car are fairly common
After the ceremony the wedding party made their way to the bride's home for the feast.
Then the honeymoon had no traditional significance after the wedding feast or neithior.
The honeymoon might have then been limited to a single day at the seaside.
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A birth or marriage is a joyful occasion and is a signal for neighbourhood rejoicing,
in the same way illness brings many callers - it is considered obligatory for at
least one member of each family in the locality to visit (rhoi tro) the sick
Often they would bring gifts and should the person be so ill as to require constant
attention, they would offer their services to watch (gwylad) at night. Should this
offer not be made, the family of the sick person would consider it un-neighbourly,
even though the offer might not be accepted
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