The tradition of Y Fari Lwyd which translates to Grey Mary in English is one of the strangest and most ancient of a number of customs in which people in Wales have used to mark the passing of the darkest days of midwinter. It certainly has pre-Christian origins and is said to bring luck.Though the tradition's exact origins are murky, the image of a white horse has been a powerful symbol in the United Kingdom for at least 3,000 years. In Celtic Britain, the horse was seen as a symbol of power and fertility and prowess on the battlefield. In Celtic mythology, animals who had the ability to cross between this world and the underworld (the Celtic Annwn) are traditionally white or grey coloured. Arawn, the King of Annwn’s dogs, is white with red ears and he rides on a large grey horse.
Traditionally a New Year’s Eve luck bringing ritual Y Fari Lwyd consists of making a horse figure from a horse's skull,( though a genuine horse’s skull is gold dust these days ) with two black cloth ears sometimes sewn onto the cloth, making it look extra horrible, and the eye sockets are often filled with green bottle-ends, or other colored materialdecorative false ears and eyes attached.They adorn it with colorful reins, bells and ribbons and the equine image of death has an especially ghostly appearance thanks to the white sheet draped over the person carrying it.The lower jaw is sometimes spring-loaded, so that Mari's operator can snap it at passers by or householders.
The Fari Lwyd and her group go from house to house and pub to pub and try to gain access by performing a series of verses, or ‘pwnco’ in Welsh. The inhabitants would reply with their own verses in a battle to outwit Mari and her gang and prevent her from entering. Eventually she will be let in, as this confers luck on the household for the coming year and scares out anything unwanted from the previous year. Once inside, more songs are sung and the group is given drinks and food.
The Mari party consists of commedia del’arte characters. The Merryman plays the fiddle; The Leader, plus top hat, holds the Mari’s reins; The Sergeant keeps the peace. Pwnsh a Siwan (Punch and Judy) are played by two male characters. The practice of disguising the characters was to preserve anonymity and to distance them from everyday life. This tradition of blackening or colouring the face to take on another ‘character’ can be found in most indigenous cultures and in Britain in the older Morris sides.
The industrial revolution and the rise of fire-and-brimstone chapel preaching had a serious effect on the Mari Lwyd. The parties had gained a bad reputation for drunkenness and vandalism as they roamed the villages. Many a sermon was preached against the continuance of such a pagan and barbaric practice, and the participants were urged to do something useful instead, such as taking part in eisteddfodau. Enter Nefydd, the Rev. William Roberts (1813-1872), a Denbighshire man who became a Blaenau Gwent Baptist minister. He hated the Mari Lwyd. He wrote a book entitled The Religion Of The Dark Ages, gave a detailed account of the Mari and transcribed 20 verses, so his congregation could recognise it. He campaigned with great fervour: “We must try and get the young people of our time more to interest themselves more in intellectual and substantial things such as reading and composing poetry, essays, singing etc, as is encouraged and practised in our Eisteddfodau… I wish of this folly, and of all similar follies, that they find no place anywhere apart from the museum of the historian and the antiquary.”
Christmas carols began to be sung at the doors instead and the battle of insults and verse dissapeared, and in some areas the Welsh language gave way to English. By the 1960's the custom of the Mari had almost died out. But the Welsh population hungrily seized on the fragments of the Mari’s tradition, and – thanks to Nefydd – we can now study the Mari verses in all their true splendour, and thankfully there has been a growing interest in Y Fari Lwyd in recent years, which has seen a resurgence in groups performing this tradition across Wales, Maris can now be spotted from Holywell in Flintshire to Pembrokeshire involving bardic battles, revelry and much drinking. I do like a good revival, especially of something as unique and unusual as this.The strength of the Mari tradition can be measured at the National Eisteddfod, which takes place in August. At one Eisteddfod, 30 Maris turned up. Wonderful stuff long may this trdition continue to grow.
The tradition of the Mari Llwyd - BBC Cymru