Advent Calendar for Grown-ups

by Paul Bommer

DECEMBER 22 Mari Lwyd

Mari Lwyd
Illustration by Paul Bommer
Used by permission

The Mari Lwyd (in Welsh, Y Fari Lwyd) is one of the strangest and most ancient of a number of customs with which people in certain parts of Wales used to mark the passing of the darkest days of Midwinter.

The Mari Lwyd (or Grey Mare in English) is a Welsh New Year celebration. 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, but was 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 consists of a mare's skull fixed to the end of a wooden pole; white sheets are fastened to the base of the skull, concealing the pole and the person carrying the Mari. The eye sockets are often filled with green bottle-ends, or other coloured material. The lower jaw is sometimes spring-loaded, so that the Mari's 'operator' can snap it at passers-by. Coloured ribbons are usually fixed to the skull and to the reins (if any).

During the ceremony, the skull (sometimes made of wood) is carried through the streets of the village by a party that stands in front of every house to sing traditional songs. The singing sometimes consists of a rhyme contest (pwnco) between the Mari party and the inhabitants of the house, that challenge each other with verses, often insulting.

The Mari Lwyd has become associated with a resurgent awareness of Welsh folk culture. For example, 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 (see yesterday's entry) occurs in the border town of Chepstow, South Wales, every 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 and exchange flags in a gesture of friendship and unity and celebrate the occasion with dance and song before performing the 'pwnco' at the doors of Chepstow Castle.

My mother is Welsh, but from Ruthin in the great wild North of Wales.

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. The man asking her the questions is for Rees-Davies, a handyman, and 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. She was known and infamous for her saucy performances and innuendo—when town councillors banned her from singing her song 'I Sits Amongst the Cabbages, and Peas' because of its implied reference to micturation, she promised to alter the lyrics appropriately—and sung 'I Sits Amongst the Cabbages, and Leeks' instead!

Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!

From Paul Bommer: Illustration, design & Print-making. Used by permission.

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