Mysterious and menacing it is. In this dark, cold time of year, a pale horse, the Mari Lwyd, appears.
Since childhood, the Mari Lwyd, like other ghostly horse or hooded animal traditions and folklore, has always fascinated me. The Mari Lwyd is a wassailing Welsh folk custom celebrated from December 25th to January 6th (from Christmas day until the eve of Little Christmas). However, dates do differ from village to village.
Is the Mari Lwyd an actual horse?
Mari Lwyd is an eponymous hobby horse that is fashioned from an actual horse’s skull, mounted on a pole, and carried by an individual hidden under typically, a white cloth that falls from the horse’s skull.
Traditionally Mari Lwyd is decorated festively (usually with colorful streamers or ivy) and taken around the village between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night. Mari is always accompanied by an ostler, sometimes other folk characters like a jester and a Lady, or even the traditional British puppet show characters Punch and Judy. This group will go house to house singing and partaking with the occupant of the home an exchange of rude rhymes. If Mari Lwyd and her gang are given entrance to the home, it will be bestowed’ with good Luck for the year. Mari Lwyd is known to be mischievous and will try to steal things and chase the people she likes.
The first written record of the Mari Lwyd is in J. Evans’ book from 1800. Mari Lwyd means grey or pale mare, connecting it to the heritage of pale horses in Celtic and British mythology, many of whom can cross over to the underworld. One example from Welsh mythology taken from the Mabinogion, Rhiannon (often seen in modern times to be a form o goddess) rode a white horse that allowed her to travel between the realms.
Many who hold the Mari Lwyd tradition close to their heats, along with early folklorists such as Iorwerth C. Peate and Ellen Ettlinger, believed that the tradition had once been a pre-Christian religious rite. We can see why considering it does appear to be very Pagan. This notion has been declined by scholars amid a lack of supporting evidence. Mari Lwyd has similarities to other hooded animal customs in Britain, such as the Hoodening in Kent, the Broad in the Cotswolds, the Old Tup in Derbyshire, and the Old Ball and Old Horse of Northern England.
What is wassail?
Wassail is a hot beverage made from mulled cider, ale, or wine. Spices such as cinnamon and close, along sometimes with others, are added. It is drunk traditionally as an integral part of wassailing.
What is wassailing?
It is typically a drinking ritual and salutation usually involving door-to-door charity giving or used to ensure a good harvest and good luck for the following year. Wassailing falls into two categories: house-visiting and orchard-visiting wassail. With the house-visiting wassail, people go door-to-door, singing and offering a drink from a wassail bowl in exchange for gifts; this practice still exists today but mostly has been replaced with caroling. In the Mari Lywd tradition, singing and drinking are also typically involved. The orchard-visiting wassail is an ancient custom of visiting apple orchards. Reciting of incantations, prayer, and song to the trees; are conducted to promote a good harvest for the coming year. Today those that carry on this tradition, visiting an orchard is not necessary (nor always convenient). The rite can be carried out upon a tree or trees dwelling on the private properties of individuals within the village.
The ups and downs of the Mari Lwyd’s journey:
In the 19th century, Welsh Methodists and other Christian groups criticized the Mari Lwyd. In his book titled “The Religion Of The Dark Ages” 1852, Baptist minister Reverend William Roberts called her “sinful” He also transcribed twenty verses of Mari’s performance, helping to (unintentionally, of course) spread the tradition. Nothing was able to stop the spirit of the Mari Lwyd. Despite fears and alluding that the Mari Lwyd tradition was dying, the practice still lived strong in Cardiff, Bridgend, Llangynwyd, Neath, and other parts of Glamorgan/Glamorganshire.
By the 1960s only a few Mari Lwyd processions were left, but in years to follow, the Llantrisant Folk Club revived the tradition, as did a family in Llangwynyd, and I for one am thankful that they have.
By Kindra Ravenmoon ©
*A great book to consider if you want a more in depth insight to the history and tradition of wassailing: https://www.troybooks.co.uk/wassailing-the-british-midwinter-blessing-custom/
The below videos display present day Mari Lwyd and Wassailing celebrations: