Thinking of visiting the U.K. this January? Are you a fan of bizarre holiday traditions (and maybe a little dark humor)? Make sure to visit southern Wales and you may get to sing a tune with the Mari Lwyd.
The Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare) is an old Celtic tradition that is making a resurgence in certain sections of Wales. Though its origins are unknown, it seems to be derived from pagan ritual that rings in the new year – which is what caused it to fall out of favor during the Methodist Revival of the 18th century. The custom involves visiting homes and pubs, door-to-door for a wassail (singing carols) in hopes of getting free food or drink in return.
The most important part, of course, is the Mari Lwyd. Made of a mare’s skull (or a fabricated one in modern day) on a pole, decorated with colored baubles in the eye sockets, covered in ribbon, with a white sheet draped over the back that hides its operator. Often, the skull is set-up to function like a puppet head, with jaw-snapping action. Well-dressed with a pack of musical merrymen, the leader will sing songs, or begin a pwnco with the home- or business-owner. The pwnco is a rhyming contest of improvised call-and-reponse verses that goes back and forth until one side gives up.
The Mari Lwyd also causes general chaos by running through the streets, snapping its jaws at passer-bys and attempting to scare children. When is that not a good time? The party also usually includes two people dressed as Punch and Judy – the popular U.K. puppet duo known for slap-stick comedy, typically involving literal slapping and sticks.
As a point of cultural pride, many towns in Wales have made it a point to bring back the Mari Lwyd. The town of Chepstow holds an annual Wassail Mari, with singing, dancing and “other stranger capers”. This year’s celebration is on January 17th, so you’d better book a trip soon if you’d like to have some good, old fashioned (weird) fun in Wales this season!
Image: Wiki Commons