WALES is often known for its rich history and interesting culture and traditions. However, one exciting Christmas tradition – Mari Lwyd – has been nearly forgotten.

Mari Lwyd often visits Welsh residents during winter. Most typically, during the month of December, in the days following Christmas.

A horse skull for a head, a mane composed of colourful ribbon, holly and ivy, and eyes made from baubles, it’s difficult to not recognise this traditional Welsh character immediately. 

However, in recent times, Mari Lwyd visits are more infrequent, so people are less likely to recognise her or understand her origins. 

The first written record of Mari Lwyd dates back to 1800, in J. Evans’ book ‘A Tour through Part of North Wales’.

Only a few Mari processions were left by the 1960s, including in Pencoed near Bridgend and Pentyrch near Cardiff.  

Later that century, Llantrisant Folk Club revived the tradition, as did a family in Llangwynyd near Maesteg, who still visit the Old House Inn in the village with their Mari today: three generations of landlords have now hosted them.

The tradition is now  best known for its practice in Glamorgan and Gwent. There are Mari Lwyd shows carried out in December in St Fagans National Museum in Cardiff. 

She is typically carried on a stick from door to door in small villages. When a person opens their door, Mari Lwyd will sing Welsh Christmas songs, or more traditionally, will take part in a ritual known as pwnco.

The person carrying the horse skull will exchange rude rhymes with the resident of the house. 

In some stories, allowing Mari to enter your home will grant you good luck for the year. 

However, in other stories, the homeowner must reply to Mari in their own rude rhymes or sing excuses as to why the horse cannot enter their premises. 

If the person fails to produce reasonable excuses or rhymes, Mari Lwyd is allowed access to your home and can raid your food and drinks. 

The tradition has similarities to other hooded animal customs in Britain, such as the ‘Hoodening’ in Kent, the ‘Broad’ in the Cotswolds and ‘The Old Tup’ in Derbyshire, which involved a group of poor people trying to find food and money in the harsh depths of the winter. 

Although the custom was given various names, it was best known as the Mari Lwyd; however, the etymology of this term remains the subject of academic debate. 

The folklorist Iorwerth C. Peate believed that the term meant “Holy Mary” and thus was a reference to Mary, mother of Jesus, while fellow folklorist E. C. Cawte thought it more likely that the term had originally meant “Grey Mare”, thus referring to the heads’ equine appearance.

In other instances, the Mari Lwyd custom is given different names, with it being recorded as y Wasail “The Wassail” in parts of Carmarthenshire.

 In the first half of the 19th century it was recorded in Pembrokeshire under the name of y March “The Horse” and y Gynfas-farch “The Canvas Horse”.

So while Mari Lwyd may have a terrifying appearance, it is unlikely that she’ll be at your house to raid your food anytime soon.