Yesterday we had music and lights, today we have a tradition revolving around a horse's skull - the Welsh Mari Lwyd.
I first read about the Mari Lwyd ("Grey Mary" to some who connect it with the Virgin Mary, "Grey Mare" to others who connect it with pale horses in Welsh mythology) in the last book of the "The Dark is Rising Sequence" by Susan Cooper, "Silver on the Tree" - a horse skeleton galloping faster than any living horse and without sound, red ribbons dangling from its lower jaw. I remember well how creepy the image was to me.
Back then, I knew nothing of the Welsh wassailing custom that has first been recorded in 1800.
The Mari Lwyd may turn up on your doorstep accompanied by a group of people - and in old days by a Punch & Judy show - demanding to be let in for food and drink, a demand which has to be refused several times before finally letting the group come inside. Similar customs exist in other countries as well for the days between Christmas and New Year's Day.
The special part is that the Mari Lwyd is a horse skull with glass or baubles for eyes, embellished with ribbons and carried on a pole by a person underneath a cloak.
Sure, come on in, dead horse, let's have a drink together!
As if that isn't enough the Mari is a bit menacing in other ways, she chases people and snaps at them.
|R. fiend, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons|
Some people think the Mari Lwyd is of pre-Christian pagan origin, but there are no recordings that would confirm this. Nevertheless, Christian clergy in the 19th century criticized the custom which seemed to be dying out, but never went away completely.
Nowadays the tradition has been revived, in fact it has even spread to regions where it hadn't been exercised before, such as the USA, which has led to the question if this isn't cultural appropriation. Is the Mari Lwyd only for Welsh people in Wales?
I'm in Germany, so I doubt I'll see a real Mari Lwyd anytime soon, but I still think it's a fascinating tradition!
By, the way, have you been wondering how to pronounce Mari Lwyd? Here you go. You're welcome.
Jude Rogers: The midwinter majesty of the Mari Lwyd
David R. Howell: It's Mari Lwyd season - but who owns the tradition?
Sympathy for the Moon (blog by David K. Thorpe): On the trail of the Mari Lwyd