CHRISTMAS is a time of tradition. A time for many of us to revisit our childhood, and to pass on to younger generations our own festive customs that we ourselves have learned from our parents and grandparents over many years.

But while some are rooted in religion, and some in myth and fairytale, there are many Christmas traditions which, for whatever reason, we continue to follow despite having no knowledge of their true meaning.

Local historian Karl-James Langford has been delving into the history behind a number of festive conventions. Here he writes about some personal to him, some obscure, and others that will bring back fond memories for many of us of Christmases gone by.

The Yule Log

Something familiar to many of us at Christmas is the Yule log. It was certainly colourfully displayed in my childhood home 40 years ago, what it meant back then I have no idea. But now I know – even if my parents didn't know at the time – it meant good luck.

The log we used was recycled year after year. But generations before 'for luck', the custom was to place the old Yule log (kept from the fire last Christmas Eve) onto the fire at Christmas eve. As this slowly became consumed by the flames, a fresh log would be placed onto the fire, and when this too became consumed, you would save a section of the wood not yet burned for use the following year.

By the loss of the bell

More than 100 years ago, Barry was a hive of various Christian denominations. The old fashioned Church in Wales, Anglican and Catholic faiths would have all had a distinct bell ring from the many churches once situated across Barry and Cadoxton.

These individual chimes would have been recognized by the various congregations, as time to arrive at church throughout the Christmas season. There are examples in the past when bells were stolen from churches in Barry, and in 1572, a bell was taken from St. Nicholas church. Such a valuable item could not be replaced straight away, so Christmas festivities that year would have been interrupted. The congregation the next year would have had to have learnt a new tone to be called to the Christmas festivities.

Churches in the area would have held early morning services at 4am on Christmas morning. It has been referred to as the 'morning watch' to celebrate the birth of Christ, known in the Welsh language as 'plygain' (meaning early morn or dawn). These Barry churches were brilliantly illuminated and beautifully decorated, a short service was held and carols were sang afterwards. But references to this custom seem to have died out some time around 1860.

Christmas coal

The ports were built on exporting coal. In 1913 alone, Barry exported 11 millions tons of it. When I was a child, I was told that if I was not a good boy I would get a sack of coal instead of my gifts from Santa. I have recanted this story many times, and those from the surrounding area remember being told the same thing by their elders. It's plausible a child 100 years ago may have preferred a bag of coal, it would have kept them warm being placed on the small fireplace in their bedrooms.

A key activity in the Christmas break for all the family, particularly the not so well off, would have been the collection of coal washed up on the beaches. This would have been lost overboard from the various vessels sailing out of the port.

Ships bringing gifts

The Victorian carol song 'I saw three ships', is very apt in regards to Barry's port. These ships the carol tells us would come in on Christmas day. Many of these ships would bring in exotic items, from far away, and as a metaphor for the Nativity, frankincense myrrh and gold would come from far and away, bringing them to the manger of trade in Wales, Barry.

Such a wonderful mix of sailors from all parts of the world, they would generously introduce, in the pre-war days, exotic fruits such as the pineapple, passion fruit, fresh fig, and even the banana.

Banana a Christmas gift

My grandmother has told me the following story over and over again. At Christmas just after the war, my aunt was given a special gift. Today the humble banana is a regular snack in millions of children's lunch boxes up and down the land, but after the war they were, along with many things, in short supply.

The occasional treat however would come via the way of dock worker's at Barry's once important port. One such treat was a yellow banana. My grandmother, Phyllis, who is 99 years old and months away from her 100th birthday, will tell you that the family had no idea what to do with this banana thing. My granddad was given it via one of the boys from the dock, who had told him that they were very tasty. My aunt was to have this as one of her stocking presents. Still only 6 years old, she delighted in finding this unusual gift that Santa had left. Whilst my grandmother and granddad watched, my aunt marvelled at the banana. She smelled it, licked the skin and recoiled in disgust. And my grandmother said, bite it like an apple. My aunt did so, and the taste of that bitter skin has put her off bananas for life.

When the GI came to town

No story about visitors from abroad would be complete without mentioning the American GI. My grandmother mentions how kind and polite many of the GIs were when they lived in Barry between 1942 and just after the war. For the first time, children and adults alike would find gifts in their stockings such as a bottle of coca cola, nylon stockings for women and the men a pack of American brand cigarettes. But the downside with the influx of GI's was the candy. So much was given as gifts to the children of the town that dental surgeries would soon be inundated for years come. But hey, what would a modern Christmas be like if wasn't for candy and chocolate, all thanks to the GI.

The Calennig

In the lead up to New Year's Day, children would go from door to door with skewered oranges in Barry (and elsewhere in Wales an apple was utilized) which rested on three sticks like a tripod. The orange itself was stuck with cloves and occasionally topped with greenery. The children would enter into carolling, receiving cakes or maybe a penny for their efforts. Oranges were used in Barry, as these were plentiful due to the importing of the exotic produce.

When I was a child at Romilly Infants school, we did still make a calennig, but the carolling was not encouraged, and these were prepared just before we broke up for Christmas and placed on a shelf at home until the decorations came down.

As for the origins of the calennig tradition, some historians believe it goes all the way back to Roman times, or beyond. It isn't clear whether the calennig was introduced by the Romans, but it does have some connection with the Roman festival of Saturnalia that lasted between December 17-25.