A horse skull draped with ribbons | The Mari Lwyd

The Mari Lwyd at St Fagans 2019.

The Mari Lwyd is perhaps one of Wales' most well-known folk customs. A horse skull draped with ribbons, the Mari Lwyd (The Grey Mare) often startles those who meet her for the first time. 

She usually makes her appearance between December and Old New Year, with the longest continuous Mari Lwyd taking place every year in the sleepy village of Llangynwyd in South Wales. 

The Cowbridge Mari Lwyd via The Peoples Collection Wales

The Mari Lwyd consisted of a horse's skull which had been buried in fresh lime – This was usually the same skull used as the Mari Lwyd a year earlier. In some cases, a wooden block was used instead of a horse's skull.

A pole was inserted into skull or wooden block and a white sheet draped over it. Coloured ribbons were used to decorate the skull with glass used to represent the eyes. Pieces of black cloth were then attached to serve as ears. The gentleman who was chosen to carry the Mari Lwyd stood under the sheet holding the pole, reigns and bells were then attached. The gentleman was then able to operate the jaw of the skull to create the illusion that the horse was alive.

The Mari Lwyd and her party at Llangynwyd photographed by Frederic Evans. 

The Mari Lwyd party consisted of a Leader, Sergeant, Merryman and Punch and Judy. The Merryman brought his fiddle, Punch and Judy were dressed in tattered clothes with blackened faces with the rest of the party decorated with ribbons and sashes. 

As the Mari Lwyd approached the house it was intending to visit, the leader would tap on the door while the rest of the party including the Mari sang traditional rhymes. If the door was answered, the party and inhabitants of the house would engage in a 'battle of wits.' 

Wel, dyma ni'n dwad

Gyfelillion diniwad

I' mofyn am gennad - i ganu 

(Translation: Behold here we come, simple friends, to ask for permission to sing.)

Rhowch glywed, wyr doethion 

Pa faint ycho ddynion, 

A pheth yn wych union - 

yw'ch enwau? 

(Translation: Let us hear, wise men, how many of you there are, and what exactly are your names?)

The Mari Lwyd and her party at Llangynwyd photographed by Frederic Evans.

When the house was entered, Y Fari paid special attention to the female occupants. This was done by neighing at the women as well as biting and nudging them. The Merryman played his fiddle while Punch and Judy began their show. 

Judy entered with her broom to clean the hearth. She was then knocked to the floor by Punch who ran around attempting to kiss the women of the household. Punch was then chased through the house by Judy and hit with her broom. 

Having sung and danced, the party would sit to eat food and drink ale. On their departure, the Mari Lwyd wished the household a Happy New Year.

Dymunwn ich lawenydd

I gynnal blwyddyn newydd 

Tra paro'r gwr i dincian cloch

Well, well y boch chwi beunydd 

(Translation: We wish you joy to live a new year; as long as the man tinkles his bell, may you improve daily.)

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