In recent years, the internet has developed a certain amused fascination with an old Welsh Winter-time custom known as the Mari Lwyd. Around the Christmas season, photos and short blurbs about this strange tradition circulate across social media, often met with general interest and brief chuckle because of the chaotic nature of the performance. Although the Mari Lwyd has become more well-known lately, the origins and early purpose of the custom remain somewhat mysterious even among folklorists.
Much of the jubilant custom remains debated, including the origins of the name. Many scholars and religious leaders assert that the name “Mari Lwyd” is a reference to the Virgin Mary, or Mother Mary from the Christian faith. This idea is supported by the lack of recorded evidence of the custom before the year 1800. However, this claim is widely disputed and many believe that the tradition is of pre-Christian origin. In the Welsh language, “llwyd” means “Grey,” implying that the name Mari Lwyd could simply mean “Grey Mare” and therefore has nothing at all to do with Christianity or the Virgin Mary.
If the name does indeed mean “Grey Mare,” the tradition can be closely tied into older British and Celtic folk beliefs about a pale horse which was able to travel between the realms of the living and the dead. This otherworldly horse would arrive to collect the souls of the dead or to lead spirits to their place in the underworld. This coincides with the use of a horse’s skull in the costume used for the practice.
The earliest known description of the Mari Lwyd was in J. Evans’ book titled A Tour Through Part of North Wales, which was published in the year 1800. In Evans’ account, and in other accounts following his, the custom is described as a sort of small procession throughout the town. While each town had different variations of the celebration, they basic characteristics were generally the same. A group of men would gather and don eccentric costumes before traveling door-to-door and engaging with the people of each house.
The star of the procession was a horse skull mounted atop a tall pole or staff, which was adorned with flowers, stones, ribbons, and other ornamentation. One man would carry the horse head and staff along with him, and he himself would be covered from head to toe in a white cloth. Traditionally, this cloth was made of a thick, coarse material such as goat fur or wool. This gave the illusion of a ghastly ghost horse meandering through the night. The other men in the group would follow the horse headed man around dressed up in colorful or extravagant outfits, sometimes even dressed as beautiful women. One man would be the leader, one man would make music, and often, a jester would be present to bound around the room and incite the group.
Today, photos of the spectacularly adorned horse skull can be found across the internet, spreading bemusement to the masses. This is one old tradition that would likely be accepted back into the world with open arms. It’s certainly a different form of holiday cheer than the sort most of us in modern times are accustomed to. I believe that we as a global culture could always benefit from procession of song, dance, and brilliantly attired horse skulls.