Two popular Welsh folk customs, the Mari Lwyd and the Hunting of the Wren, are part of winter calendar traditions which are enjoying a resurgence of interest and practice in modern times. Although these customs were celebrated on varying dates, depending on the time period and area of Wales in question, they tended to occur sometime between Christmas through to Twelfth Night, and occasionally extending through to Candlemas on February 2nd. This season of festivities was one of great revelry in Wales despite, or perhaps because of, the relative isolation of individual households due to the weather. The conviviality of these festivities function to bring together an otherwise disconnected community, thereby reinforcing a sense of social collectivity in the face of winter’s forced seclusion.
Although these traditions were practiced independently of each other, they bear certain similarities which may be a reflection of the social needs of the season itself rather than due to their having any common origin. While these customs appear on the surface to have been based in ancient belief systems, historically speaking we only have proof of them dating from the late 17th century, at the earliest. It is believed that the practices appeared around Wales and other parts of the Celtic world, including Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, in response to the need for the inhabitants of these countries to reaffirm their cultural identities in the face of political and socio-economic change. These traditions seemed to die out by the middle of the 20th century, only to be revived in recent years with growing social interest in local folk culture.
Although we cannot be completely sure of the original meanings and purpose of these folk practices, we can deduce certain characteristics from the words of traditional songs and the traditional actions of the wassailing parties which have survived the centuries. Indeed, it may be that over time, celebrants were without consciousness of the original meaning of their actions but were rather more interested in the social aspects of the holiday celebrations as well as the promise of good food and, especially, drink. This may account for the endurance of these traditions long past the time that they fulfilled their original cultural purpose.
The Mari Lwyd
The Mari Lwyd is an example of mumming custom, a practice wherein holiday revelers disguise themselves and go from house to house, celebrating by various means including: singing, playing music, dancing, parading, or enacting a seasonal play. In the case of the Mari Lwyd, a man wearing a horse costume fashioned from the skull of a horse traveled with a retinue which visited homes and public houses seeking entrance by engaging in an ex tempore battle of verses with those within; if the party outside won, they were let inside and joined a feast laying in wait for them. The Mari Lwyd tradition is believed to have been a form of wassailing. Derived from the Anglo-Saxon wes hail, meaning “be whole” or “be healthy”, wassailing was a ritual of communal drinking, usually from a specialized bowl or large cup, which was believed to impart abundance, increased fertility, and good fortune to all who partook of the drink. While the wassail was often performed independently of the Mari Lwyd tradition, wassailing appears to be a core component of Mari Lwyd custom; members of the party brought with them the special twelve handle wassailing bowl as they went from household to household seeking entrance, and would share it with the inhabitants of the homes which let them in.
While mostly associated with New Years and Twelfth Night, there are accounts of the Mari Lwyd tradition taking place as early as Christmas and as late as Candlemas, and it is believed that the process of going door to door took place over the course of several days.It is unclear where and when this custom first became enacted, or indeed what it was originally intended to accomplish. It is known to have been widespread throughout Wales by the late 18th century, and was enacted up until the early 20th century, with a contemporary modern revival. Scholars disagree about the custom’s purpose, and are uncertain about the etymology of its very name. The most accepted theory is the most straightforward, that Mari Lwyd means “Grey Mare” and that the color grey ties this figure to the Otherworld.
The significance of the horse has a long history in Wales, dating back into pre-Christian times. Horse divinities such as the Gallic Epona, the Irish Macha, and the Welsh Rhiannon are prominent in Celtic culture, and these goddesses appear to be concerned with healing, fertility, and death. Indeed, Epona is depicted on several Gaulish carvings playing the role of the psychopomp, and leading the deceased to the Otherworld. The horse also figured markedly in a Romano-Celtic divine horseman cult, where these divinities seem to have played roles both as protectors and healers.
Further, there are what appear to be sacrificial burials of horses evidenced all over the Celtic world. The association of these cult deposits with locations which had liminal qualities – that is, which straddled two different worlds, such as land boundaries or areas marking the transition between sacred and profane space — causes Green to hypothesize that the horse might have been thought of as dwelling in both worlds as it was part wild and part domestic. This seems to be consistent with the later Welsh custom of burying horses’ heads under the threshold of houses, under hearths, or straddling the chimney, in order to prevent evil spirits from entering the home.The protective powers of the horse, along with their association with liminality, are key aspects of the Mari Lwyd custom, as we will see.
Traditionally, the Mari Lwyd is made from a horse’s skull which has been buried in a lime pit to remove the flesh; in some rare instances, the horse head is carved from a block of wood instead. The excarnated skull is affixed to a five foot long pole and is veiled by a long piece of canvas, under which a man is hidden who manipulates the macabre puppet. A hinge is placed in its jaw, to which a shorter wooden pole is attached, thereby allowing its handler to open and close the mouth with an unsettling snap. The eyes of the Mari Lwyd are set with thick glass from bottles, two ears made from black cloth are sewn onto the shroud-covered head, and the whole of the figure is decorated with flowers and ribbons. A pair of reins bedecked with bells is attached to the skull, and it is with this that the leader of the Mari Lwyd band directs the horse.
There is a variation of the Mari Lwyd from Pembrokeshire, known as Y Gynfas-farch (“The Canvas Horse) or as simply Y March (“The Horse”). This figure is created out of the canvas cloth which otherwise used to cover the grain-drying kiln. The sides of the sheet were sewn at two corners to form a nose, button eyes were affixed on either side, and makeshift ears were created by attaching two brown gloves used for the harvest. The head of this “horse” was stuffed with straw, and like it’s more literal manifestation, the puppet was manipulated by a man underneath the canvas who used a pitchfork stuck up into the head to move it from side to side. The connection with the harvest is especially suggestive in this variant of the Mari Lwyd, seeming to lend credence to the hypothesis that the tradition can be traced back to pre-Christian fertility rituals.
A band of revelers accompanies the Mari Lwyd as it processes from house to house, with some regional variations on who comprises the group. These names are known to us through the traditional rhymes which are a central to the Mari Lwyd ceremony. The person who manipulates the figure itself is called the Bearer. Next, there is the Leader, who holds the reins and carries a wooden club with which to knock on doors of houses. With him is the Merryman, who sometimes plays the fiddle and engages in comic antics once the party gains entrance into a household. Punch and Judy are represented by two revelers in blackface, and the group is rounded out by a Sergeant, and sometimes an Ostler. The group often wore distinctive clothing, consisting of colored ribbons and roses sewn onto their garments, and they sometimes wore wide sashes tied around their waists.
Although the tradition itself differs regionally and at different time periods, the celebration follows the same approximate course. The Mari Lwyd and her company set out at dusk, going house from house and seeking entrance. The doors and windows of each home are closed to them. The Leader knocks on the door asking permission to sing for the right to be let in, with verses such as this:
Wel dyma ni’n dwad
I ofyn am gennad
I ofyn am gennad
I ofyn am gennad i ganu
Well here we come,
To ask leave
To ask leave
To ask leave to sing.
When permission is granted, a competition of verses begins between the revelers outside and the occupants of the home. Some of the rhymes were traditional forms, memorized by the participants, while others were created on the spot as part of a true battle of wits. Typical verses were of a question and answer type, where the Mari Lwyd band was asked who they were, where they had come from, and how many were in their group. While there was great sport in this exchange, its end result was almost always a foregone conclusion, as eventually the Mari Lwyd group would “beat” those in the house and would thereby gain entrance both to the dwelling and to the feast waiting therein.
Once inside, the Mari Lwyd would chase after the women of the house, pretending to bite them by snapping at them with its jaws, neighing at them, and even blowing on them. The play was rather sexually suggestive, with Punch pursuing the women and trying to kiss them, even as Judy – who carried a broom which she used to sweep the hearth clean – would try to stop him by swatting him with her broom.The suggestive nature of this play may be a remnant of the fertility aspects of the tradition. After feasting, drinking, and merrymaking, the Mari Lwyd party would depart by singing traditional verses invoking good luck and happiness to the household for the year to come. For example:
Farewell, gentle folk
We have been made welcome
God’s blessing be upon your house
And upon all who dwell there.
Another traditional verse often recited was:
We wish you joy to live in a new year
As long as the man tinkles his bell
May every day get better.
Another interpretation of Mari Lwyd posits the name to mean “Holy Mary” and associates the tradition with celebrations of the Virgin Mary. The time between Christmas and Candlemas has some Marian significance. Mary gives birth on December 25th, Twelfth Night is the Epiphany as well as the old date of Christmas according to the Julian Calendar, and finally Candlemas roughly corresponds with the time of Mary’s purification after giving birth. Indeed, Candlemas is also called Gwyl Fair Y Canhwyllan, the Festival of St. Mary of the Candles.
Attempts have been made to associate the horse symbolism with the donkey upon which the Holy Family is said to have escaped to Egypt. Some wassailing songs associated with this time of year make direct references to Mary, and ask that the windows and doors be opened to her. While this is an interesting reflection of the goal of the Mari Lwyd band to gain entrance into the household, scholars such as Juliette Wood believe the connection of this tradition to Mary is tenuous at best, giving further support for the theory that over time and through gradual cultural shifts, Christian meanings became overlain onto ancient traditions whose symbolism and purpose were slowly forgotten.
Further, it has been argued that as the tradition moved into the modern era, it lost more and more of its religious significance and became, instead, a winter folk custom enjoyed for social purposes – an opportunity to eat, drink and be merry with one’s friends and neighbors.Wood takes this a step further, focusing less on the origins of the practice and more on the social function the Mari Lwyd fulfilled. Instead of being a vehicle of sympathetic magic, bringing fertility and abundance to the household, the Mari Lwyd served a practical purpose, bringing communities together during the more isolated winter months, and sharing food with neighbors at a time when, especially in rural areas, it had become more scarce.
Wood ties the practice to the liminal qualities of the season, the transitional time between the old year and the new – between the barrenness of late winter at Christmas, and the first signs of Spring celebrated at Candlemas — and sees in this a reflection of the desire for the Mari Lwyd party to want to cross over the more literal threshold into the home. This echoes the Celtic conception of the horse as guardian and psychopomp, and its presence at this interstitial time assists in bridging the two worlds and allowing new, fertile energies to replace the fallowness of the dying year. This sentiment is also present to some degree in the practice of the Wren Hunt, discussed in Part II of this series.
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