Friday, January 4, 2008

Christmas in Monmouthshire

Christmas festivities are wide ranging and special in Gwent. The Anglican churches such as at St Gwynlliw's (Woolos) and St Gabriels in Cwmbran are rich in carol services and Christingles. The schools take the oppurtunity to use the Churches for Carol services and they do quality nativities. The Welsh ones are lovely too with nativity plays whic include harp music and the mystery of the Nativity, even including the Magnificat.

Carol singing still happens. The Children's choir sang at a supermarket and at Tredegar House the big mansion of Sir Henry Morgan and former site of St Joseph's Convent. Above all it was accompanied by the Mari Lwyd ( the gray horse head known as grey Mary) but meaning the Venerable Mary. The origin of this custom, and the Gwentian carol equivalent was played on the podcast by a harp. The Mari made another appearance at the Star Hotel in Llanfihangel Crucorney near Abergavenny on Christmas Eve and again on 18th January will appear again in Chepstow as part of the Two Rivers Festival, when the Welsh march to the middle of the bridge over the Wye and invite the English over the enjoy all the festivities.

The origins of this custom is a hybrid, and at least half of it has originated from the ancient miracle plays of Christmas , when particular honour was paid to Mary who had agreed to God's plan to save humankind by coming to earth in the form of a man. A special Mass was said and very often, as in continental style, a statue carried around to the sound of carols and white candles, followed by a special Mass (Mary's Plygain and Mass) When Catholic worship was ruthlessly suppressed, the Plygain remained as an early morning carol singing service and the customs about Mary reverted to an earlier pagan custom of the worship of the old Welsh goddess Rhiannon (Epona) who was said to ride a dead soul into the next world.Of course during Cromwell's time, this was all suppressed, but with the Restoration of Charles II the ancient customs reappeared-possibly as a covert way of continuing Mary's Plygain, or simply enjoying the custom for the fun it was, terrifying ladies with the great snapping jaws and being offered hospitality and money for singing the traditional carols. An account of the last Mari at Caerleon was in 1932-possibly the war put a stop to it.

We took the Mari a superb creation made by Mrs Catherine Probert all decorated with robbons and a pine wreath around the mountain from Coedeva up to Cwrt Henllys and it was awesome seeing the great silver horse walking up the mountain and accompanying the carollers.

Tredegar House was awesome, the Great hall bedecked with Holly and Ivy and enormous Christmas Trees with myriad white lights being the only lighting. Underneath the tree before the great fireplace was the excellent little choir, pink cheeked from the cold night air. They sang earnestly, their true little voices marking a point in their lives which would disappear into the memories of their parents, as they sang with such excellence and sincerity. The audience, gathered to hear and gave enthusiastic applause.Then the children did a tour of the house-saw the various scenes from A Christmas Carol, met Scrooge in his bedroom and teased and taxed him , wishing him a Merry Christmas and singing him carols which he hated and sent them off angrily, at which the children screamed and teased him more! Other popular rooms were occupied by scenes from the Victorian pantomime Cinderella, and I thought the Ugly Sisters rather good. The evening finished with a party in the servants hall, with Chocolate Logs and minced pies and copious amounts of Mulled wine for the non drivers and juices for the drivers.The band with wind instruments, a harp an accordion and a bodrhan played lively Welsh airs and great fun was had by all.

On Christmas Eve, I attended another Christmas service . This was in the Church in Wales at St Gabriels in Cwmbran. It was the primary Christmas Service for the Children, all of whom turned up in party clothes, or dressed as angels or characters from the Nativity Play. The Christmas tree lights (coloured) were the only electric lights. The whole church was lit by candlelight and the childrens faces glowed with light. There was a nativity by very young children and standing room only. Our Lady's statue was lit by a hundred small votive lights and when the children began to process around with their Christingles it was lovely.

All these things have been talked about on the podcast. We returned to Griffithstown and at the Christmas Eve meal and then the presents were distributed as the had been left by Father Christmas earlier. For an hour or more there were shrieks of joy and the sound of the children playing their games and the whole interesting and joyful to see. My mother watching, thinking back to her childhood in Germany and we back to ours, all the joy of it, and the people whom we loved and whose 'eyes have hid their lustre in the grave'. I believe they were there too watching the joy! Happy Happy Christmas! Long may it continue to delight and enthrall those who are children at heart!

On Christmas Day, there was a visit to te Catholic Chapel at Llanarth Court. This is the oldest Catholic Chapel in Gwent which survived the persecutions and survived being demolished or burned by the government . It was very sweet insdie and you can see some of the photos here. Its dedication used to be to Our Lady,but is now to St Michael the Archangel. This is the powerful angel of St Michael's Mount or in Welsh the Skirryd Fawr which towers over Abergavenny. During the time of the Crucifixion ,when the veil of the Temple was rent in two, the mountain shattered in two halves. Some say the it was sliced in two by the great sword of Michael, The name Ysgryd implies that which has been shivered or shattered. A church honouring St Michael was built on the top and during the time of the terrible persecutions, catholics used to climb to the top of the mountain for secret Masses and Rosaries. St Michael was their protector, and through all the hangings and drawings and quarterings of the priests at this time (all of whome were local boys) through all the fines and pinishments, the Catholic community held firm, supported by the prayers and practical resistance by the local Catholic landowners, who did what they could to protect and help and provide money to protect the priests and places of worship which were often demolished or attacked if they lay outside some of the grnd houses.I will come back to all this later-for indeed the following day we say a priest hole in the White Hart Inn-another secret place to hide a priest at a Mass Centre in a pub. This was a good cover as they could pretend they were there to drink if the soldiers came.

Llanarth Chapel had a well played organ and flute and a lovely Christmas morning service. Boughs of greenery with red bows hung everywhere and before the altar a lovely tiny nativity scene decorated with more greenery.
It was a lovely Mass with pretty music and lovely people, whom I later met. I am sure I shall see them again. There were a number of patients from the hospital there, who seemed to be upset, but overall, it was fascinating to see all the Mediaeval stained glass and the special statue of the Virgin, which may have been there when the chapel had been disguised as a chicken house at one time to disguise it from priest humters. After two hundred years of such persecution,many people had given up church all together and others had simply given in to attending the Church in England, being unable to stand the fines and the terror any longer. However Llanarth Chapel stood proud ,a worthy relic of those times into the twentieth century itself and we learned that the Archbishop, Peter Smith will visit soon.You can see some of he Llanarth pictures around the pages here, including the statue of St Michael of the Skirrid or Holy Mountain. God's people had been saved and the Church growing again, evern exceeding Anglican attendance at services. Up the hill from the chapel lay the ancient monastery which had honoured the great Welsh Saint Teilo. Now in Anglican hands, this too had a burial ground for the Catholics who had owned the church and living and in it were buried many of the heroic Herberts, and a Knight of the Realm. Within a few short weeks. I had visited the house of the Morgans and the Herberts, those heroes of that difficult period. It had been a very Happy Christmas and New Year was even better.Happy New Year to all my listeners of the Podcast Mary in Monmouthshire and readers of this blog! God Bless you in all your projects and with good health (Iechyd da) in the year 2008 AD.

1 comment:

Mary in Monmouth said...

Hi, wanted to create some confusion. Materiana was the daughter of Vortimer and Rowena, daughter of Hengist and granddaughter of Vortigern.

Ynyr Gwent or Honorius was a kinsman of Vortigern as well and placed on the throne of Ewias by Vortimer, who married him to his only daughter.

Ynyr Guent was therefore the son in law of Vortimer and treated like a son.

Just in case you were confused!!!