The ‘MARI LWYD’ has now passed into the realms of legend and folk lore and no one can tell when the custom started. The name was one thought to be associated with ‘holy Mary’ for originally the event was carried out by mummers dressed in all sorts of clothes, three of who were supposed to represent the Virgin, Joseph and the infant Jesus. Gradually the religious significance was dropped and the chief characters became a man dressed in a white sheet with the skull of a horse on his head, two characters called the ’Leader’ and the ’Sergeant’ and a knock-about pair called ‘Punch and Judy’. The custom is now assumed a nightmarish aspect and Dr. Iorwerth Peate believes the real translation of ‘Mari Lwyd’ is the ‘the grey mare’- with nightmare attributes.
The event took place at Christmas. The skull of the horse, having been buried in the ground for a whole year to whiten it, was bedecked with ribbons, papers and streamers. The joints of the jaw were wired so that the lower bones could be moved up and down whilst the eye sockets were filled with coloured glass. Sometimes a lantern would be placed inside the skull giving the whole thing a bizarre and frightening appearance. The ‘Mari Lwyd’, accompanied by a large party of men and youths carrying flaming wooden brands, would tour the streets of a village. The men specially chosen for their quick wit and ability for instant rhyme, would demand entrance into a house. The door would be knocked and a request for hospitality made. If the occupant was wise he would keep the door barred, whereupon the singers of the party would break into song, usually lament about the hard fate of the poor mid-winter. The ‘Leader’ would then ask for food and drink but the householder would continue to plead poverty. This started a conflict in verse, either sung or recited, both parties giving as good as they got. Riddles were asked and, if un-answered, the door had to be opened and the feast began. Once inside the ‘Mari Lwyd’ made great sport, paying particular attention to the ladies, nudging and biting them in their tender parts. ‘Punch and Judy’ would have a battle, usually with brooms and, after much revelry, money would be given to the ‘Mari Lwyd’ or the whole party denuded the house of food and drink.
If the ‘Mari Lwyd’ were badly treated the men were entitled to force an entry and then the custom sometimes degenerated into a ransacking . *Indeed, the event which originally was eagerly anticipated by the villagers and enjoyed by all was gradually spoiled by a rough element that crept in. The wit and singing were forgotten and the ‘Mari Lwyd’, in many areas, became nothing more than invasions of privacy by gangs of unruly youths; so much so that the processions were often greatly feared.
The writer who many years ago, once saw an elderly relative have a heart attack at the sudden appearance of the ‘Mari Lwyd’ at a house in Porthcawl, has never been sorry that the custom has died away, though he has since heard that the ‘Mari Lwyd’ has been revived in Llangynwyd, near Maesteg.*
(The photograph above shows Sianco’r Castell and others with ‘Y Fari’ or 'Mari Lwyd ' in Llangynwyd circa 1904)
Here you can listen to a version of 'Y Fari Lwyd' recorded in 1953
*These views are not mine but they are the views of the author*
The Legends of Porthcawl and the Glamorgan Coast
Author: Alun Morgan
Author: Alun Morgan
Illustration by Margaret Wooding