A Merry Christmas with the Mari Lwyd

Caroling is a popular Christmastime activity in many parts of the world, harking back to the European wassailing tradition where people would go door to door singing in exchange for hot drinks (wassail) and food, especially during the Twelve Days of Christmas between Christmas and Twelfth Night (January 6th). But in Wales, the twist is that a horse skull called the Mari Lwyd may come with the singers – and challenge you to a rhyming contest. But don’t worry: If (when) you lose and the horse skull comes inside, it will bring you good luck for the New Year.

A modern Mari Lwyd, photo by Andy Dingy

The origins of the Mari Lwyd (pronounced like “Merry Lew-id”) are obscure. Even the exact meaning of the name has been lost, but many people think it comes from “Grey Mare.” The Mari Lwyd could have its origins in the pre-Christian Celtic veneration of the horse. It also could be related to the sixteenth-century fad for hobby horses in Morris Dances and other holiday celebrations. Or possibly both. Similar traditions exist in Cornwall and in other pockets of the British Isles. The tradition almost went extinct in the 1800s when it came under attack by preachers as superstitious, but it survived in a few places in South Wales and is now enjoying a resurgence.

So, if a group of singers carrying a horse skull comes to your door this Christmastide, enjoy the rhyming and the good luck that comes with it.

A Mari Lwyd from 1914