The Ancient Tradition of the Mari Lwyd at New Year

Mari Celeste Photo courtesy of John Exton

One of the most delightful traditions in the new year is what the Welsh call the Mari Lwyd. Mari Lwyd is a Welsh tradition that happens on or around 25 January. It involves a group of people singing and parading a horse’s skull, adorned with ribbons and other decorations, through the streets. The name “Mari Lwyd” literally translates to “Gray Mare,” The tradition is thought to date back to the ancient Celts.

The origins of the Mari Lwyd tradition are shrouded in mystery, but it is believed to have roots in pre-Christian rituals and may have originally been a way of warding off evil spirits. Some theories suggest that the Mari Lwyd represented a deity or spirit and that the tradition was a way of asking for the deity’s blessings or protection. Others believe that the Mari Lwyd was a way of marking the transition from one season to another or celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

Regardless of its origins, the Mari Lwyd has been an essential part of Welsh culture for centuries. In the past, the tradition was common in rural areas, where it accompanied other customs such as mumming (a form of folk theatre) and wassailing (a tradition of singing and drinking to the health of trees).

The Mari Lwyd tradition is typically carried out in the weeks leading up to Christmas and the New Year and involves a group of people, led by a person carrying the horse’s skull, singing and dancing through the streets. The group will often stop at the doors of houses and engage in a verbal sparring match with the occupants, using rhyme and wordplay to try and gain entrance. This part of the tradition is known as the “pwnco,” It evolved to entertain people during the long, dark winter months.

It is still practised in Wales today. One of the more typical ways the tradition is practised now is to take the Mari Lwyd from pub to pub and involves Morris dancers. It has largely lost its religious or spiritual significance and is now more of a fun and light-hearted way of celebrating the holiday season. It is popular in the south Wales valleys, where it is a longstanding and beloved tradition. 

Despite its long history, the Mari Lwyd tradition has undergone some changes. In the past, real horse skulls were used, but today, many groups use a replica or a papier-mache version of a horse’s head. The costume worn by the person carrying the Mari Lwyd has also changed over time and now typically consists of a white sheet with holes cut out for the eyes, mouth, and nose.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Mari Lwyd tradition is how it has adapted and evolved while retaining its essential character and spirit. Whether it celebrates the end of winter or simply as a fun and festive way of bringing people together, the Mari Lwyd remains an important and beloved part of Welsh culture.

Despite its popularity in Wales, the Mari Lwyd tradition is relatively unknown outside the country. However, in recent years, it has begun to gain more recognition and attention, with groups in other parts of the UK and even in the United States starting to adopt the tradition.

Overall, the Mari Lwyd is a unique and fascinating tradition that has played an important role in Welsh culture for centuries. It is a testament to the enduring power of folk customs and traditions and a reminder of the importance of preserving and celebrating our cultural heritage. It is a fascinating and vital tradition that should be preserved and celebrated.

You can find more New Yearโ€™s traditions in the post-Christmas and New Year in Wales.

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