Christmas Traditions: The Mari Lwyd

What is the Mari Lwyd?

One of the most well-known Welsh customs is the Mari Lwyd, meaning 'Grey Mare', a horse-figure carried from door to door by wassail-singing groups during the Christmas season.

Popular in South Wales during the 19th century, the tradition features a real horse's skull, usually decorated with coloured ribbons and rosettes and with glass bottle eyes. The lower jaw is fixed on a spring which shuts the mouth with a loud snap and brings the creation to life. A long white cloth is draped down the carrier which hides him from view.

Occasionally the head was of wood, one account says paper, and in around 1935 a group of boys in Swansea used a pillow, but a horse's head was characteristic. The same horse's head tended to be used annually, for it was buried in lime to preserve it for most the year, and dug up each December.

How is Mari Lwyd celebrated?

In terms of the celebration itself, the custom used to begin at dusk and often lasted late into the night. During the ceremony, a party of usually all men, would carry the Mari through the streets of the village singing and dancing. The Mari does not hunt alone, for depending on the area and the amount of people in the wassailing party, she can be joined by an array of other characters named Punch and Judy, the Sergeant and the Merryman.

Even very small groups usually have a leader, who holds the reigns to control the horse and take charge of the singing.

They would visit every house or pub in the village and stand in front of the door to sing traditional songs.

Next followed the pwnco, an improvised rhyme and verse contest between the Mari party and the inhabitants of the house.

There was a lot of leg pulling, and the verses were usually quite mischievous.

Traditionally these exchanges would be done with the door closed, and the contest could last for some time, sometimes even an hour or so, until one side gave up.

If the Mari side lost the contest, they would have to leave without being admitted to the house. However this would have been quite a rare occurrence, as the Mari entering the building was thought to bring good luck, so they would usually win (or be allowed to win).

Alternatively, the Mari party might sing one last verse begging for entrance.

Once inside, the entertainment continued with the Mari running around neighing and snapping its jaws, creating havoc, and frightening the children, while the Leader pretended to try to restrain it.

The Merryman played music and entertained the householders. Punch and Judy would also be part of the festivities. The participants would be rewarded with food and drink, and sometimes received a gift of money as well. The visit concluded with a traditional farewell song.

Popularity of the Mari Lwyd

With the earliest account of the Mari dating from 1798, the boom years, as regards to the amount of horse's heads in existence, were between 1850 and 1920.

Apart from one or two sightings in the north, the ritual remained exclusive to south Wales, being especially popular in Glamorgan, Monmouthshire and Carmarthenshire.

A general decline occurred in the number of Mari Lwyd groups during the twentieth century. One of the reasons normally given for its demise is the decrease of Welsh speakers, preventing inhabitants from replying to the Mari group, as the Mari Lwyd contest was almost always sung and performed in Welsh.

Another reason for the custom's decline was the increasing rowdiness and drunkenness which became associated with it. This was seen as unacceptable behavior especially with the rise of the Chapel and Methodism in Wales.

However there has been a growing interest in the Mari Lwyd in recent years, and this has resulted in a resurgence in groups performing this tradition across all of Wales.

Comments(1)

lilac
13 December 2015, 20:19
thank you!!!!!!!!!!
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