Mari Lwyd - a Welsh Christmas tradition

Llantrisant Mari Lwyd Mari Lwyd or Grey Mare is an ancient Welsh tradition celebrating the end of the Christmas season (taking place from Christmas into January). A group of singers would go house to house (including pubs) with the Mari Lywd and try to gain entry by a verbal contest with the inhabitants. The Mari Lwyd consisted of a horse's skull with false eyes and and ears and a white sheet attached. The jaws were wired so they could be snapped. Bells were attached to the reins and horse adorned with colourful ribbons. Either a person dressed up as the Mari Lwyd or it was carried on a pole.

Y Fari Lwyd - The Grey Mare

The group would start by singing a song asking permission to sing and requesting entry for food and drink. Part of the song (translated into English) is:

Y Fari Lwyd    Well, gentle friends
   Here we come
   To ask may we have leave
   To ask may we have leave
   To sing

   The large, sweet cake
   With all kinds of spices:
   O cut generous slices
   O cut generous slices
   This Christmas-tide.

   O, tap the barrel
   And let it flow freely;
   Don't share it meanly
   Don't share it meanly
   This Christmas-tide.

The pwnco (debate)

The song was followed by a debate between one of the group and one member of the household. The debate was a battle of wits in verse (or song) - often exchanging insults such as mocking the person's singing, drunkness or meanness. If the group member won, the door would be opened and the group allowed into the house for cakes and ale. Often the group would entertain the household and be given a gift of money.

Origins

The origin of the tradition is probably pre-Christian and possibly associated with Rhiannon or the horse goddess Epona. In the Mabinogion (a traditional Welsh folk tale) Rhiannon rode a shining white horse. Pagan midwinter festivals celebrated the miracle of rebirth as the days started to become longer and Spring approached - a tradition taken over by the Christian church and absorbed into Christmas.

Decline & revival

Once common in many parts of Wales, by the 20th century the tradition was only continued in Glamorgan and Gwent. By the 1960s very few places, notably Llangynwyd near Maesteg, carried on the tradition as shown in the video below which was recorded in 1966.

The decline of the tradition was no doubt due to the reputation it acquired for drunkenness and vandalism as well as it's pagan origins - in direct conflict with the strong chapel movement in Wales. There has recently been a revival with folk clubs in particular trying to keep up the tradition. The video below shows a more recent example of the tradition being acted out.

Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you.

More information

Posted on 21 December, 2011

 
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