No Christmas tradition bears more resemblance to Halloween than that of the Welsh celebration of Mari Lwyd. There are costumes, trick or treating and a macabre skeleton mare that has risen from the dead and wanders the streets with her attendants with one goal in mind – to get into your house. To keep them out, you must engage in a battle of wits…in rhyme no less.
An ancient practice, Mari Lwyd or Grey Mare/Holy Mary is typically celebrated on New Year’s Eve. Since these ancient times, people have celebrated festivals of light – signifying rebirth and hope in times of darkness. In the festival of Mari Lwyd, we have the rebirth of a dead horse. A horse skull is affixed to a pole with a white cloth to hide the puppeteer. Mari Lwyd is sometimes decorated with festive ribbons and bells or winter greens and accompanied by costumed, wassailing revelers, who are representative of the dead who have risen to remind the living of their existence.
Mari Lwyd and her group, knock on doors asking, in song, to be let in. The song is sung in Welsh and is pretty much the same with a few variations. You can listen to it here:http://www.omniglot.com/soundfiles/songs/yfarilwyd.mp3
Once the traditional opening verses are sung, Mari Lwyd and company are answered by those inside with challenges and insults. A battle of wits known as a pwnco ensues, where riddles, challenges and insults must be exchanged in rhyme. If Mari’s party wins the pwnco, which can be as long as the creativity of the two parties endures, the Mari party enters with another song and is given drinks and treats.
* Mari Lwyd piece by Laurence G. Tilley http://www.lgtilley.co.uk/gallery.html
* Mari Lwyd artwork by Paul Woodford http://www.artmatters.org.uk/