The New Year period features various traditions and perhaps none are stranger than the Mari Llwyd.
As someone who used to live in Cornwall I was a visitor to the Padstow Obby Oss festival, an exciting local event that has now become a major tourist draw for people around the world! Although they take place at different times of the year, there are definitely similarities between the two and indeed there are other variants elsewhere in the UK and Europe.
Some people have speculated that the Obby Oss is a relatively recent invention, but the Welsh and Cornish have so many links and so much shared history going back into antiquity, it seems that it is likely to be a much older tradition like the Mari Llwyd and as maintained by many local Cornish folk.
The Mari Llwyd is almost certainly a pre-Christian ceremony, and was once widespread in Wales and in Pembrokeshire it was called ‘Y Gynfas farch’ (The Canvas Horse). It could make an appearance at different times of the year varying with the county or place. In Pembrokeshire it was associated with New Year, but visits from the creature would take place over several days or even weeks!
Making the Mari Lwyd was a rather gruesome task, as it usually comprised the skull of a horse that had been stripped of flesh by burying with lime. Sometimes a wooden block was used; the lower jaws fixed with a spring so that it would shut with a snap and frighten the onlookers! The skull or block was fixed to a pole approximately 5 feet long with a white sheet draped over the head and attached like a cloak. There were bells and coloured ribbons sewn to the skull, glass eyes and cloth ears. A man would then stand under the sheet operating the mouth.
The Mari Lwyd would be part of a group of men dressed sometimes as the leader and main singer, the Sergeant, the Merryman and Punch and Judy. This procession would approach a house and having knocked and being denied entry, would commence singing traditional rhymes. This would be a lighthearted battle of nerve and wits between the party outside and the householders within. Eventually entourage and the Mari Lwyd would gain admittance, the horse snapping and biting’ at all the women! There was then much fun and frolicking, with Punch chasing Judy, kissing the women, Judy sweeping the hearth and Merryman playing the fiddle. Eventually all would sit down to eat and drink and be merry!