Mari Lwyd: This charming horse skull is not your average Christmas caroler

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The Welsh Christmas tradition of Mari Lwyd

Say hello to Mari Lwyd, a unique Welsh twist on Christmas. Imagine a horse skull decked out in festive gear, leading a parade of songs and laughter. This is far from your usual holiday fare. Let’s take a peek into the quirky, fun world of a Welsh Christmas where old legends mingle with new festivities. Get ready for the fun and slightly odd journey of Mari Lwyd!

A little weird, but not as creepy as it looks…

Welsh Christmas celebrations bring a unique blend of old-world charm and modern festivity to the holiday season. Among these, Mari Lwyd is a standout tradition.

Mari Lwyd is an extraordinary sight — a horse’s skull, decked out in ribbons and bells, mounted on a pole and hidden under a cloth. It’s the centerpiece of a tradition involving song, witty rhyming challenges, and community spirit, typically celebrated from the end of December into January. It’s a living link to the folklore of Wales.

The origins of the Mari Lwyd can be traced back to pre-Christian times. Its evolution over the years reflects the shifts in Welsh society, retaining its core elements while adapting to the times. Recently, there’s been a resurgence in interest in the Mari Lwyd, highlighting it as a symbol of Welsh cultural pride.

Mari Lwyd offers more than just holiday fun — it’s an opportunity to learn about Welsh culture and history during Christmas. Whether you’re joining in or just curious about it, this tradition adds something unique to the holiday season.

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Image taken during the Chepstow Mari Lwyd. The Mari is being lead around Chepstow. Photo by Mickwidder, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mari Lwyd pronunciation and origins

First off, let’s get the pronunciation right: it’s “mah-ree loo-id.” This holiday tradition is a distinctive part of Welsh Christmas customs, and it has roots that reach deep into the country’s history.

The beginnings are believed to stretch back to pre-Christian times, possibly rooted in pagan celebrations. These were days when the cycle of seasons, particularly the end of winter and the beginning of spring, held great significance. The horse, deeply revered in Celtic and Welsh cultures, is central to this tradition. The symbolism of the horse, especially in its skeletal form, points to a time when these animals were seen as spiritual guides and protectors, possibly serving as a bridge between the earthly world and the supernatural.

The Mari Lwyd has similarities with other hooded animal customs in Britain, such as the Hoodening in Kent and The Old Tup in Derbyshire. These traditions often involved groups of people, usually in poorer communities, using entertainment to acquire food and money during the harsh winter months.

The name “Mari Lwyd” itself has multiple interpretations. The most straightforward translation of “Mari Lwyd” is “Grey Mare,” with “Mari” being a common Welsh name and “Lwyd” translating to “grey” in Welsh. This interpretation is supported by the equine appearance of Mari Lwyd’s horse skull​​​​.

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The etymology of Mari Lwyd has been debated among scholars. One perspective, held by folklorist Iorwerth C. Peate, initially suggested that “Mari Lwyd” might mean “Holy Mary,” linking it to Mary, the mother of Jesus. However, it’s noted that “Mari” for “Mary” wasn’t typical in Wales before the Protestant Reformation. Peate later embraced the “Grey Mare” interpretation fully, aligning with the views of other scholars like E. C. Cawte, who believed this term was more fitting given the tradition’s focus on a horse​​.

Another theory, suggested by David Jones in 1888, says that the origins of Mari Lwyd might have been Christian, related to the Feast of the Ass, a celebration commemorating the flight into Egypt by Mary and Saint Joseph. According to this theory, the Mari Lwyd represented the donkey on which Mary rode. Peate and others have expressed that the Mari Lwyd is likely a survival of a pre-Christian tradition, possibly connected to ancient wassailing customs, with no link to the Virgin Mary.

The Mari Lwyd tradition, like many ancient customs, has evolved since its initial conception. Initially, perhaps a solemn ritual linked to seasonal changes or spiritual beliefs, it gradually took on a more festive, community-focused nature — eventually combining with Christian traditions. In the past few decades, there has been a notable resurgence in the tradition, rekindling interest in a tradition that had begun to fade.

The festive ritual of Mari Lwyd

At the center of the Mari Lwyd is its most striking feature: the horse’s skull. This skull is often real but sometimes made of wood or paper. It is typically decorated with colorful ribbons and rosettes and equipped with glass bottle eyes. The skull’s lower jaw is usually fixed on a spring, allowing it to snap shut noisily, adding an animated quality to the figure. A white cloth drapes down from the skull, concealing the pole it’s mounted on and the individual carrying it​​​​.

The celebration traditionally begins at dusk and can last well into the night. The procession includes a party of participants, usually men, who might attach colored ribbons and rosettes to their clothes. The group, often led by a smartly dressed individual carrying a staff or whip, brings Mari Lwyd through the streets, singing and dancing.

Traditional Welsh songs are sung, and sometimes improvised, as part of the ritual. These songs vary from region to region, with each community often having its own set of traditional tunes, some of which have been passed down for generations.

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A central part of the tradition involves the Mari Lwyd party visiting homes and pubs and standing at the door to sing traditional songs. This leads to the “pwnco,” an improvised rhyme and verse contest between the Mari party and the house’s inhabitants.

This exchange, full of playful banter and mischievous verses, typically occurs with the door closed and can last quite some time. The Mari Lwyd party usually “wins” this contest, as allowing the Mari Lwyd inside was considered to bring good luck​​​​.

Once admitted into a house, the entertainment continues with the Mari Lwyd causing playful havoc. It runs around, neighs, and snaps its jaws while other participants, like the Merryman, provide music and entertainment. Food, drink, and sometimes money are offered to the participants, and the visit concludes with a traditional farewell song​​​​.

Community and family are what truly bring the celebration to life. It’s a tradition that thrives on participation, whether you’re part of the group or simply enjoying the spectacle from a doorstep. It is meant to strengthen community ties, with families and friends gathering to participate or watch. Through the Mari Lwyd, we witness the power of tradition in connecting people and adding a special flavor to the festive season.

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Photo by Andy Dingley, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mari Lwyd tradition in modern times

In recent decades, interest in Mari Lwyd has been rekindling. While it faced decline partly due to opposition from local Christian clergy and changing social conditions, it was rejuvenated in new forms. It experienced a significant revival in the later part of the 20th century. This revival has included adaptations to the tradition, such as artistic representations, which have helped in bringing back interest​.

Families in areas such as Llangwynyd near Maesteg also contributed to keeping the tradition alive. Today, the Mari Lwyd is celebrated in various locations, including Chepstow, Gellionnen Chapel, and Llansoy, and has even made appearances at events like The London Welsh Centre. The tradition is now a feature at local midwinter events and lantern festivals, indicating its growing popularity and the adaptation to modern settings​​.

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By the 1960s, only a few Mari processions remained, but groups like the Llantrisant Folk Club played a crucial role in reviving the tradition. The custom re-established itself so firmly in places like Llantrisant that it became an expected part of the community’s festivities. By the 1980s, revived forms of the Mari Lwyd emerged in areas like Caerphilly and St Fagans. This was partly attributed to local efforts to reaffirm cultural identity, especially in regions like Glamorgan, which faced the termination of traditional industries.

The revival of the Mari Lwyd is a powerful statement of Welsh identity. For many in Wales, participating in or observing the Mari Lwyd is a poignant way to connect with their heritage. It’s more than a festive tradition; it’s become a symbol of national pride and a reminder of the richness of Welsh history. The Mari Lwyd’s presence in cultural conversations and events throughout the year underscores its significance beyond the Christmas season. 👻

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