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.
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.
I’m back from a long hiatus from blogging with some fun history facts for the day. Did you know St. Patrick was actually Welsh? He was kidnapped by pirates and taken to Ireland (“kidnapped by pirates is good!” 😉 ). According to legend, he was taken from Cor Tewdws, or the College of Theodosius, in modern Llantwit Major, Wales (on the south coast–you can see Devon across the channel on a clear day), the first college in Great Britain, and later a monastery as well. It was sacked by the Irish, The Vikings, and the possibly the Normans, but it survived until Henry the Eighth dissolved the monasteries. The church of St. Illtyd was probably built on the site of the ruins, and is still standing today. The pictures below show the ancient Celtic crosses discovered on the church grounds, and the beach where the raiders would have to have landed (the shores are very rocky, and it’s quite a hike up to the monastery site–those pirates must have been in great shape!).
St. Patrick is an interesting historical figure because, despite living in about 400 A.D., we still have some of his writings, and very few writings of any kind survived from that time. Also, his story is pretty remarkable. He was kidnapped and forced into slavery, then escaped, but instead of hating his captors, he chose to return and teach them the faith he loved. If the Irish saved civilization, it was a Welshman who showed them the way. 🙂