22nd December, Mari Lwyd
The Mari Lwyd (Y Fari Lwyd in Welsh or Grey Mare in English) is the strangest and most ancient of customs by which people in Wales mark the passing of the darkest days of Midwinter. Perhaps deriving from an ancient rite for the Celtic goddesses Rhiannon and Epona, the Mari Lwyd is associated with South-East Wales, in particular Glamorgan and Gwent. Though almost forgotten during the mid-20th century, nowadays some folk associations in Llantrisant, Llangynwyd, Cowbridge and elsewhere are trying to revive it.
The Mari Lwyd itself consists of a mare’s skull fixed to the end of a wooden pole with coloured ribbons and white sheets fastened to the base of the skull, concealing the pole and the person carrying it. The eye sockets are often filled with green bottle-ends and the lower jaw is spring-loaded, so that the Mari’s operator can snap it at passersby. During the ceremony, the skull is carried through the streets of the village by a party that stands in front of every house to sing traditional songs in a rhyme contest (pwnco) between the Mari party and the inhabitants of the house, who challenge each other with insulting verses.
The Mari Lwyd has become associated with the resurgence of Welsh folk culture, and the town council of Aberystwyth (in Ceredigion, well outside the Mari Lwyd’s traditional area) organised “The World’s Largest Mari Lwyd” for the Millennium celebrations in 2000.
A mixture of the Mari Lwyd and Wassail customs occurs in the border town of Chepstow, South Wales, in January. A band of English Wassailers meet with the local Welsh Border Morris Side, The Widders, on the bridge in Chepstow. They greet each other, exchanging flags in a gesture of friendship, and celebrate the occasion with dance and song before performing the pwnco at the doors of Chepstow Castle.
My mother is from Ruthin in the wild North of Wales, but here I have shown a scene from the small mining village of Pen-Y-Senfi in Glamorgan. The lady at the door is Mrs Dai Bread, the baker’s wife and the man asking her the questions is Ifor Rees-Davies, a handyman, while the figure under the blanket is young Gereint Pritchard (known as “Mitzi”), son of Nelly the Tripe. This particular Mari Lwyd actually imagines herself to be Marie Lloyd, the star of Edwardian Music Hall, infamous for her saucy performances and innuendo. When banned her from singing her song “I Sits Amongst the Cabbages and Peas” because of its implied reference to urination, she promised to alter the lyrics appropriately – and sung “I Sits Amongst the Cabbages and Leeks” instead!
Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!
Illustration copyright © Paul Bommer