In South Wales, not just Santa is expected to stop by your home for the holidays, keep an ear out; here comes the Mari Lwyd (Gray Mare)! Mari Lwyd is a Hobby Horse, those toy horses that was basically a stick with a stuff horse head on one end, the Welsh kept the stick but have a horse skull on the end of it! Just to add to it, a person carries the stick with the skull on it while draped in a white cloth most commonly giving the appearance that the Mari Lwyd is a tall cloaked figure with a horse skill sticking out from the hood.
Depictions of “hooded animals” are quite common in the British Isles thanks to its pre-Christian Pagan beliefs which causes confusion when trying to track down the origin of this tradition since the first recorded account of this tradition appears in the 1800’s and scholars and folklore experts can’t seem to agree if it’s a newer tradition that was started or if it’s a modern adaptation of older traditional festivities that originally were more sinister. Whether or not if this is the case is unknown.
What is agreed upon is that the Mari Lwyd is a form of Wassailing or as we would call it now Caroling. Since the 1800’s the Mari Lwyd would visit homes and recite poems wishing good luck in the New Year to the household and would request entering the home or business, the owner must deny them with a rhyme which would lead to a friendly back and forth between the owner and the merrymakers outside. Traditionally if the homeowner fails this little game they must allow the Mari Lwyd and their party to enter the home and be given food and drink. Some places where events like this are organized now, the traditions are demonstrated at a local landmark like a museum where both participants and onlookers can all enter for festivities.
The whole preparation process of the Mari Lwyd was said to be a communal event where people help decorate the outfit. Ribbons usually are attached to the horse skull; decorative fake ears are sometimes applied. A string is sometimes attached to the jaw of the skull allowing the one playing the Mari Lwyd to also act as a puppeteer moving the skull’s jaw when it’s supposed to be talking. Commonly in the eye sockets glass ornaments are put in to act as the eyes, sometimes people make eyeball looking eyes while others just use glass Christmas tree ornaments for eyes.
In South Wales during this festive time of year you can see many Mari Lwyds and other traditional, and Pagan, characters joining together in night parades dancing and entertaining the crowds that line the streets to watch the merrymaking which the biggest gathering can be seen in Chepstow, Wales were participants cross the “Old Iron Bridge” that connects Wales to England and meet English Wassailing participants who are coming from Gloucestershire. The video down below is a good example of what one would expect when a Mari Lwyd is in your home!