A VERY WELSH WASSAIL
The spectral figure of the Mari Lwyd, or grey mare, is the eerie figurehead of a surprisingly cheerful tradition still observed in Wales today, says Jude Rogers
Watch out for the eerie Mari Lwyd: a colourful new-year tradition enjoying a deserved revival in Chepstow.
“It’s about bringing light and togetherness to the darkest time of the year”
It’s a dark winter’s night on a bridge between borderlands. Many tribes are meeting here, their faces painted in frightening colours. Among them are several cloaked figures, topped with the pale skulls of dead horses. It would feel like a horror film, if it wasn’t for the uproarious singing, dancing and drinking.
It’s the same every January in Chepstow, South Wales, and many other parts of that country, where the Mari Lwyd tradition is being joyfully reborn. The Mari Lwyd (pronounced marry low-eed) is the horse itself: an eerie centrepiece of a tradition with fittingly shadowy origins. Some accord it pagan roots or connections to Celtic mythology, despite it first being recorded as a ritual in 1800. Historically, it involved a cloaked man carrying a horse’s skull on a pole, being led to the front doors of households and pubs. Here, his group sang songs, or indulged in pwnco (an exchange of ribald rhymes), before being allowed inside for food and drink. Bad luck tainted places the Mari didn’t enter, allegedly. The glowing skull held – and still holds – a macabre power. Its revival in South Wales is best seen at the Chepstow Wassail Mari Lwyd, a celebration lasting from 1pm until midnight on the third Saturday of January (19 January in 2019). It was founded in 2000 by Mick Widder, who manages the fittingly named Greenman Backpackers’ Hostel in town. Mick is usually a no-nonsense manager in a fleece and jeans, but on Mari day, he’s in a top hat festooned with feathers, badges and rags.
The Mari is connected with new-year house-wassailing across Britain – the practice of going door-to-door, offering a warming drink from a communal bowl in exchange for gifts – but its appeal today is about something else, explains Mick. “It’s about bringing light and togetherness to the darkest time of the year, and it’s also a reaction to the way we live today. We’re so overloaded now with things that go out of date quickly. We long for things rooted in the past that hold magic, and the Mari certainly has that.”
In the packed backpackers’ bar before kick-off, retired guest-house manager Shirley Rogers is having a celebratory cider; it’s her first Mari, after all. A recent convert to Morris dancing, she reckons the revival in that custom has encouraged interest in broader traditions. “And dancing around with bells on your legs is lovely; it’s going back to childhood!” Shirley likes how inclusive the Mari is today, incorporating all ages and genders. Soon after, Julia Warmin shuffles past with her 13-year-old son “little Ed”. “It’s really grown,” she nods, then looks up at Ed, and the beer mat in the middle of his hat. They first attended when he was three. “As has he.”
The creativity in these costumes underlines this tradition’s wayward appeal; these are clothes of psychedelic, punky Pearly Kings and Queens. Then the first Mari wanders in, draped with ribbons, Christmas baubles for eyes, the comfy trainers of local retiree Bob Porter only slightly undercutting its eeriness. (“What’s it like in there, Bob?” “Horrible, love!”)
Other Maris arrive: one led by David Pitt, a Swansea-based children’s
“There are beast-men in other folk cultures who stand at doorways between worlds”
storyteller who builds Maris himself. He mentions beast-men in other folk cultures who stand at doorways between worlds, highlighting Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations; the traditions of hoodening in Kent and soul caking in Cheshire also share characteristics. David loves the elements of mischief and misrule in Mari Lwyd too, and its class aspect: the Mari being cheeky at his master’s door, demanding favours. “And when you wear it, it’s strange,” he says. “Something takes over. You’re not possessed, exactly… but it’s like it’s got a life of its own.”
MISCHIEF AND MAYHEM
An hour later, at a cashpoint machine, a Mari is trying to steal someone’s fiver. He’s led away by a woman in traditional Welsh costume, laughing like a drain. The opening dances all done, everyone parades down to the castle, where toast is being hung on the apple trees (another wassailing tradition, to assure a bountiful crop) and songs, such as the Gower Wassail, are being rowdily sung. Parents push buggies and locals stroll along accompanying the wide range of groups taking part in the Mari. These include representatives of younger subcultures, including goth and steampunk, as well as couples such as journalist John Foxen and his asylum-support-worker wife Mab, here today from Teignmouth, Devon. Mab carries a fox skull on a stick, red battery-operated lights in its eyes. “John had the arduous task of drinking all this beer,” she says, pointing out the bottle tops up the pole. As she does, a Mari wearing a ‘Naughtiest Pony’ badge steals my wallet.
By 4.30pm, it’s dark and all the cloaked creatures have a pageant at the back of a pub. There’s Morvaugh the seahorse from Land’s End, draped in turquoise and fairy lights. The group from Ystradgynlais, Swansea includes a jester and ostler (the Mari Lwyd also has connections with seasonal Mummers’ plays). Then there’s Carmarthenshire art therapist Vivien Morgan-Larcher, leading a Mari with a gothic hood on her head. Vivien is continuing a family tradition, as her grandfather, Dai, used to do his own pwnco. “He’d get coppicing work from the local farmer. It was a way to survive. It was networking before networking, in the best possible way.” Her husband Phil Larcher, a mental-health worker, nods inside his cloak. “Phil never talks when he’s the Mari. I shouldn’t be talking to you, Phil, should I?” She laughs. “You’re a dead horse on a stick!”
Two hours later, the inclusiveness of this day reaches its fantastic climax, at the town’s beautifully ornate, bordercrossing Wye Bridge. Gloucestershire wassailers come over from the other riverbank. The new friends share cider, sing wassails and Welsh hymns. They head back into Chepstow, all together, for a spot of refreshing pwnco and a cèilidh, and as they do, 25 horse skulls glow brightly in the darkness. Their power is great enough, uncannily, to linger all winter.
5 From the horse’s mouth: Welsh hymns on the Old Wye Bridge 6 Phil Larcher rests his weary hooves 7 Wassailers join the parade from the Gloucestershire side of the Wye8 The Widders Morris dancers bring bells to the procession 9 After an attempted theft, a naughty Mari makes a quick getaway 9