The holiday season draws ever nearer; lights have been lit, the first snow has fallen, the air is turning cold, and it can all only mean one thing: Somewhere in Southern Wales, a horse readies itself for the most exhilarating rap battles of the season.
Christmas is a beloved holiday in countries all over the world, even in ones that don’t typically celebrate Christian holidays. With this melange comes an incredibly diverse set of traditions and folklore that feature some of my favorite myths ever. From anti-Santa’s that kidnap naughty children, to a giant cat that eats you if you didn't get any new clothes, Christmas folklore has some of the most diverse (and terrifying) tales of all the festivals. However, at least to me, none of those can even hold a candle to my absolute favorite winter creature: The Mari Lwyd.
Some of you may have been slightly confused with my opening line. Worry not! The Mari Lwyd is a Southern Wales folk custom that features a “hobby horse,” similar to other hooded animal traditions in Britain. Generally performed around Christmas time, the Mari Lwyd is made up of a horse’s skull on a pole, with a sackcloth draped around it to hide the person underneath. The pole has a lever system, allowing the Mari Lwyd’s mouth to open and close. Once dusk falls, the person playing the Mari Lwyd will go from house to house with a retinue that features “stock characters” like Punch and Judy, and knock on the door.
When the home dweller answers, the Mari Lwyd will ask to be let in in song. A common opening is “Wel dyma ni'n dwad (Well here we come)/Gy-feillion di-niwad (Innocent friends)/I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)/I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)/I ofyn am gennad i ganu (To ask leave to sing).” The inhabitant will then offer an excuse, again in song, to not let the party enter, thus commencing a pwnco, or musical debate. The Mari Lwyd and the inhabitant will then go back and forth until the Mari Lwyd and its party give up and leave, or the home owners relent. If the latter occurs, the Mari Lwyd will then enter the house and wreak havoc, snapping its jaws and scaring children, while a well-dressed member of the Mari Lwyd’s party known as the leader “attempts” to wrangle it. The Mari Lwyd party will then help itself to the homeowner’s pantry, before leaving off into the night to terrorize a different house.
The Mari Lwyd is hotly debated by folklorists, with its etymology and origins theorized to be everything from a Samhain ritual, to a part of the festivities for the Feast of the Ass (with the Mari Lwyd representing the donkey that Mary rode when she fled to Egypt). However, most folklorists agree that the Mari Lwyd definitely is related to the wider “hooded animal” traditions of Britain.
The Mari Lwyd is definitely my favorite Christmas tradition. It's actually almost cute, in a very odd, unsettling way. Make sure to keep your best rhymes on-hand in case it picks your pantry as its victim this holiday season!
Cover image can be found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chepstow-mari-lwyd.jpg; Photo by Mickwidder.