Mari Lwyd, South WalesThe old Welsh Christmas and New Year’s custom of Mari Lwyd, (alternatively rendered into English as Grey Mare or Holy Mary) has elements which strongly suggest links with pagan times, and was often rowdy enough to excite the wrath of chapel preachers. It thus seems to have become less popular in the late 19th century, and to have died out everywhere, with perhaps one or two exceptions, after WWII . These days revivals in some places and possible survivals in others are giving new generations the chance to witness the quirky goings on.
The custom is essentially a visiting wassail, a party calling on private houses and pubs alike with the honourable aim of obtaining free drinks and a bite to eat, and maybe at the big house a few bob too. Most important of all in the party is the Mari Lwyd, a man disguised as a horse, complete with skull (generally wooden, sometimes cardboard, but real one not unknown) on a pole, white sheet to cover the carrier, and often having reins with bells on that the leader of the party uses to ‘lead’ it, and ribbons or strips of paper decorating the sheet.
Other members of the group can include Punch and Judy (both men); and someone to play music. The party calls at a house, knocks, sings an introductory song, and then engages in a battle of rhymes and riddles (this is called a pwnco) with the occupants, who ostensibly want to keep them out, but in fact hope to lose (or engineer a defeat) as having the Mari Lwyd and friends enter meant good luck for the year, though given some of the antics described in the farewell song as the party left may well be as welcome as the luck.
Variations abound: church influence brought carol singing to the thing; tricks were sometimes played (that seem to have got the custom a bad name in some parts) especially by Punch and Judy, and the horse figure could play up to frighten children.
Settlements where the custom thrives include Cowbridge , Llantrisant , Llangynwyd near Maesteg, and in a somewhat different form at Chepstow .
More British Folk Customs?