The Mari Lwyd

Wel dyma ni’n diwad
Gyfeillion diniwed
I ofyn cawn gennad
I ofyn cawn gennad
I ofyn cawn gennad I ganu.

Well here we come / innocent friends / to ask for permission / to ask for permission / to ask for permission to sing…

The Mari Lwyd party at Llangynwyd, early 20th c.

The Mari Lwyd is an old Welsh tradition, at various times widespread across the whole country, which is a member of the pan-European luck-visiting Christmas time traditions. Its distinguishing feature is of course the Mari itself, a horse’s skull mounted on a wooden pole with a sheet covering its bearer and the whole ensemble variously decorated with ribbons, glass eyes made from bottle bottoms, leather ears and harness adorned with bells. In fact it is often so well disguised that the skull is not immediately obvious and with the bottom jaw articulated in ingenious ways it makes the whole creature quite a fearsome puppet.

The Heb Enw Mari with some friends, Chepstow, January 2017.

Despite this, possibly when a horse’s skull has not been available, a wooden block has had to substitute, and in Solva in Pembrokeshire, the Mari was constructed from a sheet of canvas about two yards square, one corner being folded and sewn to form a pointed head which was stuffed with straw, eyes made from large buttons and ears from farm-worker’s gloves sewn to the head. In this case the pole was simply a pitch fork, its prongs firmly stuck into the back of the straw-stuffed head. Here it was simply known as Y March or Y Gynfasfarch (the Horse, or the Canvas horse).

In Glamorganshire it was usual for the Mari to go about with a party of men, one being the leader who would also bear a stout stick for rapping on doors, another dressed as a Sergeant, a `Merryman’ who often played the fiddle, and Punch and Judy, both dressed in rags and with blackened faces. Others would be adorned with ribbons and colourful rags similar to those costumes worn by practitioners of Welsh Border Morris dancing. The party would visit various houses and pubs and attempt to gain admittance by taking part in a pwnco - a kind of poetic contest on the doorstep where verses sung by the Mari Lwyd party had to be countered by verses sung by those inside the house. If those inside were unable to answer the Mari’s party, they had to let them inside and ply them with food and drink, whereas if it was the Mari’s party that faltered they had to go away without gaining entrance.

It is not known if the pwnco was generally practised in other parts of Wales but certainly Mari Lwyd-ing was associated with the singing of wassail songs. Indeed, even in the same areas other parties would be going about bearing a wassail bowl and others would carry a wren house, as was the custom in Pembrokeshire, containing a dead wren. All for the same purpose, that of gaining entrance to a house and obtaining food and drink.

Mari Lwyd Mon.

With the Mari Lwyd, often the first the inhabitants would know about it would be the monstrous appearance of the creature peering in at the window. A Mr. H.W. Evans of Solva reported that his mother knew of one case where a death occurred through fright at the appearance of the Mari.
So what are the origins of this curious custom? Truth be told, nobody knows. Over the years there have been many suggestions, some more fanciful than others. Nevydd, the Rev. William Roberts, writing in 1852, considered it a mixture of pagan and Popish follies, though at the time he wrote a very clear account of the goings-on of the Mari Lwyd party which has been a great help to revivalists. Dr. Iorwerth C. Peate in 1943 considered it a pre-Christian horse ceremony of some kind, though he also argued that it may have some Christian elements as well, the Mari itself possibly being a representation of the Virgin Mary (Mari Lwyd having various translations - the Grey Mary, the Grey Mare, the Holy Mary…). To the practitioners themselves, however, it is unlikely that they thought any more of it than that it was a bit of fun and an opportunity to obtain food and drink for only a little effort and no expense.

As a common Christmas time / New Year’s custom, the Mari Lwyd had virtually died out by the early part of the twentieth century, though since then there have been many attempts in various places to revive it, often characterised by a rather poor attempt at the pwnco with pre-arranged verses being read out from sheets of paper - a sad reflection of the real thing as described by Nefydd. There has, however, been a more sustained revival in recent years, including here in Pembrokeshire. Much of this stems from an annual event held in Chepstow organised by the Widders Border Morris team - the Chepstow Wassail and Mari Lwyd, held on the nearest Saturday to old Twelfth Night and is well worth a visit. At the 2017 event there were 14 Mari Lwyds in attendance from all across Wales including our own Mari.

Our Mari with Morys ar y Clwt, 1994

The Heb Enw Mari began its life back in 1993 when it could occasionally be seen around Pembrokeshire with the Morys ar y Clwt Morris dancers based in Abercych. More recently it has been out and about with Heb Enw who, although we are based in Llanfallteg just over the border in Carmarthenshire, mostly perform around Pembrokeshire. In recent years it has made appearances around Christmas time both with the Morris team and also on its own with a small party in such places as: Tafarn Sinc, Rosebush; The Plash, Llanfallteg; Ye Olde Inne, Camrose; The Royal Oak, Fishguard; and Caffle Brewery, Llawhaden.

Tafarn Sinc, December 2015. (photo Sam Langdon)

Our normal practice is to enter the premises and sing the Mari Lwyd song followed by some plygain carols and wassail songs. Short, but hopefully sweet. The pwnco we prefer to leave to others who may be more able to make a proper job of it…

If you wish to see our Mari in action you can find our Christmas itinerary on the events page.

Chepstow 2018. (photo Chris Knibbs)

The Plash, Llanfallteg, December 2017. (photo John Smith)

We are indebted to Trefor M. Owen’s `Welsh Folk Customs’ for much of the historical content in this article.