Nothing says happy Christmas quite like a horse skull

Photo by R. Fiend CC BY-SA 3.0

On a cold Christmas night, you might just spot an eerie sight in the streets of South Wales.

Perhaps you’ll hear song emanating from a nearby pub, laughter and bells, the silhouette of a horse’s skull glimpsed through a window. It’s one of the strangest Christmas traditions in the UK.

A traditional Mari Lwyd from the beginning of the 20th century
A traditional Mari Lwyd from the beginning of the twentieth century.

What Is the Mari Lwyd?

In the distant past, someone decided to mount a horse’s skull on a pole, festoon it with ribbons and parade it around town to the accompaniment song. All for the sake of the Christmas spirit. But why?

Y Fari is lead from door to door – nowadays, from pub to pub – and her handlers sing and ask to be let in. Once inside, they are welcomed with beer and food in exchange for more singing and japes.

A Mari Lwyd.

Many commentators have suggested that the tradition goes back to pagan times. The Welsh poet Iorwerth Peate thought that it might be connected to the story of Mary and Joseph leaving Jerusalem for Egypt on the back of a donkey. He believed the name Mari Lwyd was a reference to Jesus’s mother. However, the literal translation from Welsh to English is the grey mare.

As ancient as the custom is believed to be, the earliest record dates to only 1800 and it perhaps originates no earlier than the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.

The Pwnco

When the revelers arrived at a new house, a kind of rap-battle would ensue on the doorstep. Called the pwnco, the Mari Lwyd’s handlers and the householders would sing verses in turn until the visitors won and the householders had no choice but to let them in. Caroline Yeates posts a good discussion about the use of the pwnco here.

Hobby Horses Across the UK

The Mari Lwyd is thought to belong to the wider tradition of British hobby-horses. In the North of England they have Old Tup, in the Cotswolds they have the Broad, and in Kent, there is the custom known as The Hoodening. There are many others across the UK.

Hobby horses are associated with mummers’ plays and Morris dancing and are not limited to Britain alone. They can be found across Europe, and also Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Where Can I See a Mari Lwyd?

Having almost died out in the twentieth century, apart from a few spots in Wales, the tradition has seen a revival in recent years.

A papier-mâché Mari Lwyd.

If you want to spot the mare yourself, you could head down to Llangynwyd near Maesteg on New Year’s Eve or, if you fancy spotting more than one, visit Chepstow at the end of January for the annual Wassail.