December 1st, 2017
Visiting a church or chapel during the festive period was once a deep-rooted tradition across the Welsh coast. The custom may not be as strong today but visit a beautiful coastal church for some special festive inspiration.
The smell of Christmas is in the air. Wisps of wood-smoke snake through the crisp, clear winter evening to meet spicy smells of mulled wine, scented candles and the first aromas of roasting festive birds. And inside the church the musty, dusty scent of a thousand prayers hangs in the chilly air to greet the church-goers that bustle in excitedly.
Wrapping up against the elements and heading out into the cold Christmas night to attend a church service was once a fundamental festive tradition for most of Wales. It was a custom shared by the rich, the poor, the old and young and the working classes and gentry alike.
Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was an extremely popular service, not just for the Christian connotations, but also for the community gathering and festive mood. It’s a celebration of the birth of Christ, thought to have been at the hour when Christmas Eve chimes merrily into Christmas Day. The service usually starts at midnight, although different churches and religions have many different variations on the celebrations.
These days of course, the celebration of Christmas is popularly less about its religious origins and more about families, friends and good food. And while the tradition of attending church is not as popular as it once was, a tranquil exploration of an historic church in December can uncover a glimpse of a spiritual celebration of Christmas, as well as being a peaceful reminder of the roots of this deeply traditional season.
Facing the Devil
One of our walks this month takes us to the small hamlet of Pentre Gwynfryn, tucked away in the hills above the coast of Cardigan Bay near Harlech in North Wales. The tiny Baptist chapel here was catapulted into fame in the early twentieth century by English artist Sydney Curnow Vosper. In 1908 he completed his most famous work Salem. Vosper became interested in Welsh life and culture after he married Constance James, a girl from Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales.
Salem is a melancholy portrait of Siân Owen, a 70 year old lady from the village in traditional Welsh costume with the scene of Sunday worship at the chapel as her backdrop. Vosper exhibited the painting in London a year later and soon after it was bought by Lord Leverhulme for 100 guineas, a huge sum at the time.
Salem was later used in a Lever Brother’s Sunlight Soap promotion – collectible tokens were printed onto soap boxes which could be exchanged for a copy of the painting. This was a time of great poverty and austerity for most working people in Britain and few homes could afford such luxuries as paintings or art. The Lever Brother’s promotion meant that copies of Vosper’s painting of a rural Welsh church had pride of place in homes up and down the country.
Only one of Vosper’s models was actually a member of Salem’s congregation, the others, including Siân Owen, lived in the village but all attended different chapels. One “model” was just that – a dummy!
As well as being considered a charming reproduction of a fast disappearing way of rural Welsh life, Vosper’s painting gained notoriety because it was believed that an image of the devil could be seen in the Siân’s shawl. And, it was claimed, if you could spot the devil straight away then this was a sure sign that the devil was lurking in you.
Capel Salem still stands today. Not a lot has changed along the narrow lanes and wooded hillsides; it looks the same as it did when Vosper first caught a glimpse of it over 100 years ago, and remains a testament to a long-lost way of rural living when a Sunday church service was central to a good, wholesome week.
And here’s our festive pick of North Wales Christmas Churches…. a visit to one of these peaceful, tranquil and picturesque Welsh churches will certainly get you in the festive spirit!
- St Cyngar’s Church, Borth-y-Gest (nr Porthmadog)
- St Twrog’s Church, Maentwrog
- St Dwynwen’s Church, Llanddwyn
- St Tudno’s Church, Great Orme, Llandudno
- Rug Chapel, Corwen
- Llandecwyn Church (nr Harlech)
- Capel Salem, Pentre Gwynfryn (near Harlech)
- St Hywyn, Aberdaron
- Our Lady of the Sea, Amlwch (Anglesey)
- St Tysilio, Menai Bridge
- St Asaph Cathedral