The Welsh Wassail Tradition: The Mari Lwyd
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Image Above: The Linthicum, Md., U.S.A Mari

Welsh Mari Lwyd Ritual

A figure of a horse is constructed from a variety of materials and paraded around with singers and musicians from door to door. The groups must ask permission to enter a house and battle dramaticlly with improvised poetry. They bring or request food  drink and are rewarded with the same. Note that the complexity of the ritual varies extensively. At times the Mari simply joins a procession. The goal is to scare the residents of the household, the purpose of which is poorly understood.  Are they being scared into hospitality, or, just awakened to celebrate?


(See related songs in the Wassail Song section)


The Mari Lwyd and its Origin, 1896

By The Rev. W. Roberts, (nefydd.) Translated from the Welsh by W. Eilir Evans.

The following article consists of lengthy quotations from a work written by the Rev. W. Roberts (Nefydd), a Baptist minister and antiquary of some standing, which form part of a book published in the year 1852. A large portion of the original is polemic in character, this essay having for its object the dissuasion of the inhabitants of Wales from observing the customs described."Nefydd's" descriptions of the customs in Wales are very full and accurate, and he must be looked upon as perhaps the first writer who appreciated their significance from the point of view of the student of folk--lore. The translation has been carefully done by Mr. W. Eilir Evans, at the request of Alderman Richard Cory, J.P., to whom the Society is indebted for permission to publish it.

"Certain traditions, superstitions, amusements and forms will be maintained hereditarily, without even a knowledge of, or respect to, their origin, but merely is customary, by the lower order."— (Aev. P. Roberts' Popular Antiquities.)

Without endeavouring to state the different views concerning the origin of Mari Lwyd which have recently appeared in the press,* I shall proceed to give what seems to be the more probable origin of the custom, a custom as to the beginning of which history has little definite to say. Roberts himself does not state its origin.

It is our object directly to prove that Mari Lwyd is but a relic of the dramas which were at one time performed under the sanction of the Roman Catholic Church, and it would seem that many other Welsh customs might also be traced to the same age.

*"Seren Corner,""Monmouthshire Merlin,"&c., &c.

It is well known that many dramatical compositions were formerly acted, several of which have survived to quite recent times, such as the"Mysteries of Coventry and Chester,"Doubtless such interludes as these formerly existed in Wales, indeed the Rev. P. Roberts, the writer of the"Popular Antiquities of Wales,"goes so far as to suggest that the story of Uthr Pendragon's transmigration by Merlin * is a kind of interlude. He also infers that the feast given by Cadwgan ab Bleddyn, in the year 1107, at Christmastide (vide Carnhuanawc, pp. 614 and 531), and the feast of Gruffydd ab Rhys, at Ystrad Tywi, in 1135, were held with a similar object. But it is more reasonable to suppose that those were more like Eisteddfodau, or literary meetings, at which also physical recreation was indulged in.

In the 12th century the Welsh were famous as poets, minstrels, and for their study of nature, as may be seen from portions of the work of Giraldus Cambrensis.

In the writings of W. Hone, a comprehensive account is given of the mediaeval dramas. The reader may consult Hone's book on "Ancient Mysteries and Religious Shows,"published in 1822.

It is supposed that these dramas originated in a desire to bring religion to the level of the masses, with a view to their instruction rather than amusement. In Greece dramatic representation reached a high pitch of excellence, and it is probable that the first Christian religious drama was composed by Gregory Nazianzen, when he was Archbishop of Constantinople.

The ancient  "Fathers" were strongly averse to the classic Greek plays, and condemned and excommunicated those who patronised them. Tertuilian says that"those who in their baptism renounce the devil, with his vanities, become apostates when they appear on the stage."It is supposed that the archbishop's object, in providing scriptural dramas, was to counteract the popular effects of the Greek plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and others. One of Gregory's dramas is still extant; it is a tragedy on "Christ's Passion," in which the Virgin, or the Blessed Mary (Mari Lwyd), form one of the characters. It is said that Gregory succeeded in stemming the influence of the Greek stage by providing comedies and tragedies, based on scriptural events for the people's diversion, and that these were performed in public.**

But acting, as a means of inculcating doctrines held by the Church, as already stated, was introduced in opposition to the pagan plays, and spread widely, and continued in use from Gregory's time up to a few centuries ago. Several customs still in vogue among us may be relics of those times. As regards dramas of this nature still extant, and which go under the name of "Mysteries." The Mysteries of Coventry are forty in number, and the Mysteries of Chester twenty--four. Dugdale, in a

*Vide"Enderbie's Cainb. Triumphans,"p. 185, and "Roberts' Antiquities," p. 137.

**"Ribadeneita's Lives,"Vol. I., p. 333."Leclcre Lives,"Vol. VIII., p. 289.

work published in 1656,* says:"Before the destruction of the monasteries, this city (Coventry), was famous for its plays on Corpus Christi Day, which caused multitudes of people to gather together from far and near; the acting was done by the Grey Friars, who had large and tall theatres on wheels, so as to move hither and thither in the city for the convenience of the onlookers. They consisted of Old and New Testament histories, set in rhyming dialogue, as may be seen in the old manuscript (Bibl. Cotton. Vesp. D. VIII.) called Ludus Corpus Christi, or Ludus Coventriae. "We find that there was a large influx of people to Coventry at the time these plays were acted. Richard III. was a spectator at the feast of Corpus Christi held there in 1483. Henry VII. and his consort visited Coventry for a similar purpose in 1492. The Mysteries of Chester, says a distinguished historian of that district,** were acted up to the time of the Reformation, the last time being in 1574. Williams, in his history of Monmouthshire, surmises that Sion Cent became famous for the part he played in religious dramas, and that the stories concerning him and the devil thus originated (Williams's, p. 231.) W. Hone has published a few of these dramas as specimens. Those now before me are eight in number, all referring to the birth of the Virgin Mary and of Christ as set forth in the Apocryphal gospels more especially. These were published by W. Hone, in 1820. The first mystery treats of the birth of Mary; the second of her teaching in the Temple and the ministering of angels. unto her; the third takes up the miraculous betrothal of Joseph to Mary; the fourth gives the Counsel of the Trinity regarding the incarnation; the fifth, Joseph's intention to put Mary away privily; the sixth, Mary's visit to Elizabeth; the seventh, the Trial of Mary and Joseph; and the eighth, Jesus's miraculous birth in a manger.

I believe the "Mari Lwyd" originated in these mystery--plays, the word llwyd being often used in the sense of blessed, as may be seen from the following instances:—

"Lluyilion fu'r saint, geraint gu,
Disyml, a. llwyd yw lesu."

Rhys Gock Eryri.

"Mynd, er gwann, i'r mwyndir goed,
Mae yn dy law, mynn Duw lwyd."

William Lleyn.

"A chywyddau i Ddnw twyd
Yw Llaswyr Dafydd Brophwyd."

Dafydd ap Gwilym.

"Rhad Duw a. Chynoran lwyd ar y da—The grace of God and the blessed; Cynoran on the cattle—was an ejaculation made use of in offering at the well of Cynoran, at Llysfaen, on behalf of deceased cattle."—("Cambrian Biography"sub. loc.,"Cynoran.".)

In the copy of the Cambrian Biography, owned by lolo Morganwg and Taliesin ab lolo, opposite the above quotation, a marginal note,

"Dugdale's Warwickshire,"p. 116. t"Ormerod's History of Cheshire."

written by one of the two, reads as follows—"Llwyd, blessed, hence Daw Iwyd, etc. "This will suffice, by way of illustrating the former meaning of the word, though it would be easy to multiply instances from the works of the Welsh bards to prove that it was then used. The works of the bards from the earliest times to the Reformation are full of apostrophies to the Virgin as "Mair."


Certain feasts, which may seem connected with the Mari Lwyd, were established, one was called Feast of Fools, and the other Feast of the Ass, in the year 990, by Theophylact, Patriarch of Constantinople.* Beletus states that the Feast of Fools was held in some places on New Year's Day, and in others on the 12th of January, while in some it was observed the following week. These feasts were held in the most amusing manner. In France it was observed as follows—The "Bishop," or the"Archbishop of Fools" was appointed and in the neighbourhood adjoining the metropolitan see, the"Pope of Fools"was elected. These had their proper official vestments, and made gestures on the stage, opposite the church, before the people. Their conversation and gestures were highly unbecoming; their faces were blackened. Some appeared in female attire and made coarse and lewd signs; sang immoral songs; ate pudding at the end of the altar, played at dice close to the priest when celebrating mass, censed him with the smoke of old burnt shoes, running and leaping in church. The Bishop or Pope of Fools, while celebrating, was robed in priestly vestments, and when he had finished he was placed in an open carriage drawn by a throng of clergy and laity, who threw mud and dirt over the bystanders. It must be recollected that those were the ages, very properly called  "dark."

Consequently, Gregory (Bishop of Neocaesarea, who died in 265) established holy days or feasts in memory of saints and martyrs, in lieu of the feasts of the pagans, in order to facilitate their conversion. The Christian feasts, therefore, were held instead of the pagan feasts, and grew like unto them, such as the observing of Christmas with joy and merriment, eating and drinking, and every kind of mirth and amusement, instead of the Bacchanalia and the Saturnalia, the first of May with flowers, instead of the pagan Floralia, and the feasts of the Virgin, John the Baptist, and several of the Apostles, instead of heathen institutions on the appearance of the sun in the different signs of the Zodiac, **(Some sections of the priesthood went so far in its observance of feasts of this kind in imitation of pagan practices, that Boniface is said to have "complained of certain German priests, who, though professing Christianity, sacrificed bulls and goats to heathen gods."

The tenor of Pope Gregory's letters to Milletus, the abbot, on the eve of dispatching for Britain, in the sixth century, is to the same effect. Milletus is enjoined to instruct Augustine, Archbishop of Canterbury, that"he (Gregory) having given much thought to the case cf Britain, adjudged that the temples of the idols, which that nation

*"Warton," II., 569. **"Turner's History of England, "Vol. II., p. 340.

possessed, should not be destroyed, but be sprinkled with holy water, and certain relics deposited in them. Also, inasmuch as the ancestors of the people sacrificed oxen, they be permitted to slay kine or oxen, and build huts of the branches of the trees that grew around the temples, on the day of the dedication of the latter, which were the birthdays of the martyrs and saints, whose relics the temples contained, and hold a comfortable religious feast"*

The above quotations illustrate the beginning of several feasts and customs which are still, to some extent, in vogue, but were once more so up to a recent period in the Principality. We find the origin of our May--day festivities in the pagan Floralia. It is from those we have the floral decorations, the rosettes, the ribands, and the summer dances of the North, the bearing of the may--pole, the lifting of the birch--bough in South Wales and in England. We will now confine our remarks to the feast of Christmas, though it will be necessary to notice now and again how customs have been shifted from one part of the year to another in some districts, while they are only occasionally observed in some localities. Christmastide commenced on Christmas eve, and sometimes extended over a fortnight, and at some periods we find that the holy season was kept up during December, January, and February. It was during this season mystery plays were acted, feasts given, and sports and festivities of various kinds indulged in. Now were held the Feast of Fools, already described, the Feast of the Ass, the Boy Bishop, besides the religious interludes before referred to. We now proceed to describe briefly the Boy Bishop and Feast of the Ass, which had some features in common with the Feast of Fools. It was in the Feast of the Ass, more particularly, our institution of Mari Lwyd originated.

The Boy Bishop was elected as were his two deacons. He was escorted to church, wearing a mitre, by a choir of boys, where he officiated at a sham service. Thence he and the deacons went from door to door to collect money—not to beg for it as charity, but to demand it as a right. The bishop was elected on December 6th, and held office until the 28th, or Innocents' Day. It would be too long a task to notice everything that took place on these occasions, but some discription is necessary by way of explanation. The feast and the boys were under the protection of St. Nicholas, by reason of the miracle attributed to the saint of bringing to life again the bodies of young boys who had been killed and hacked to pieces. This custom was observed in this country for about six hundred years, and such sanction was given to it by the church, that it was an honourable and legitimate feature of our religious life. Every respect was paid to the bishop as to a real bishop, when alive and at his funeral when dead. Sometimes beautiful effigies in marble were raised to the memories of these bishops, some of which are still extant.** This parody was prohibited

*"Side's Eccles. History of LnVan 1,"Vol. VIII., p. 94.
**"Brand,"Vol. I., p. 332.


by Henry VIII., and again by Elizabeth. Then commenced the practice of playing soldiers, and the election of captain and other matters were proceeded with. But as this latter custom was not under the aegis either of the church or the state, it naturally declined by degrees, and in many places it has died out completely. But in Gwent it is now almost as well known and flourishing as in the time of Henry VIII. In North Wales, and other parts of the Principality, not to mention England, nothing of it remains save that children go about asking for gifts, and collect half--pence from door to door. In some places this is done on New Year's Day, in other places on any day within the season. It helps to show that Gwent and Morganwg are more tenacious of ancient customs than any other portion, not only of Wales, but of the kingdom, as will be seen in the case again in the Feast of the Ass, which is the original, it would appear, of Mari Lwyd.

In the course of the year, there are three Feasts of the Ass, especially in Gwent and Morganwg. One commonly observed is Flowering Sunday, in memory of Christ riding on an ass to Jerusalem.* In observing this feast formerly it used to be the custom to prepare a wooden ass, on which was placed an image. This was then placed on a stage, which was moved about on wheels, and decorated with branches and flowers. The stage with its contents was then drawn towards the church by the people, going in procession and carrying branches in their hands. On arriving at the church door they were met by the priest, who blessed the branches. The branches were henceforth looked upon as a protection against losses from tempests that year in the case of those who carried them. Then the priest bowed himself before the wooden ass, lay on his face until another priest appeared touching him with a long rod. On his rising up, two other priests fell down and sang a chant in that posture. Then they would all rise up, and took the stage with the ass to church, where the ceremony was completed. Another Feast of the Ass commemorates the ass of Balaam. That was held at Christmastide. A third was in memory of the flight of Joseph and Mary with the young child into Egypt, also held at Christmas on the I4th of January. These last two in course of time became mixed up in some respects. The latter of the two was originally held as follows:— To represent Mary and her son, they sought the fairest female they could find, with a pretty child in her arms. The virgin and the child were placed on the back of an ass, the animal being prettily dressed. The female preceded the bishop and priests in a procession to church and to the altar. Mass was then celebrated, and at the close of each petition, gloria patri, and the creed, &c., the people would say, Hiu hau, hiu hau, in imitation of the braying of an ass. The priest, instead of saying"Ita missa est,"at the close of the mass, ended by singing three times, Hiu hau, hiu hau, hiu hau, and verses were sung during the service in honour of the ass. The music was purposely irregular, wine was drunk, and given to the ass, and dancing took place around it. Then, having well feasted, the ceremony was completed by acting one of the mysteries already referred to.

*"Brand," Vol. I., p. 107.

This, methinks, was the origin of what is now called Mari Lwyd. The above feasts were recently held in other countries, and we read how the Feast of the Ass was celebrated pretty much in the above manner in Ireland a few years ago. A beautiful woman represented Mary, with a comely child in her arms, riding on an ass, and a religious service of some sort performed.

It would seem that Mari Lwyd contains mixed features of the Feast of Balaam's Ass and the Feast of the Flight into Egypt, with the religious acting referred to already. The now "blessed" (llwyd) compels us to take the virgin into consideration. Again the fact that the ass's, or rather in recent times the horse's head. The head used in former times was that of an ass, within the recollection of many old people still alive, but on account of the scarcity of asses' heads it became necessary to use what most closely resembled an ass's head, and then the horse's head came in. The fact that this head talks in the play, compels us to believe also that Balaam's ass was originally a feature. Again, the dialogue employed by the different characters reminds one of the presence of the mystery element in Mari Lwyd. Possibly the following quotations from the Builder, for July 31, 1847, will convey some further idea of the religious plays refered to, as well as the vestments and instruments employed. These plays were so popular that all expenses were defrayed by the corporation. Sharp, the distinguished antiquary, in course of his investigations, came across some old accounts belonging to the Corporation of Coventry. He gives several quotations which throw light on the mode of conducting pageants in those days, and states they contained some items too immoral for publication. The following quotation shows that the corporation paid a salary to the actors, according to their ability, possibly:—

(ed. note: amounts not legible in text)

Item --paide to the sprytt of God,
Item—payd to the ij angellcs,  
Item— payd to the demon,  

It may be the following refer to the play of the judgment:—

I'tem—payd to vj white soules, .
Item—payd to vj blakke soules,

Thus the"blakke soules"got more than the others.

I'em—to ij sprytts,

I'tem—payd ij wormes of conscience,

In 1573 the player's name is mentioned who represented two characters in the same drama:—

Payd to Fawston for hanging Judas,
Pd. to Fawston for coc--croying,.

In 1578 we have:—

Pd. for a new hoke to hang Judas, .

A curious item this:—

Item—for mendyng the deville's cole.

Item—for making the sollys cottys,
Item—for the spritts of God's cote,  
Item—a hat for Pilate.
Item—for mendynge the devyls bede.
In 1477:—

Item—for mendyng the demons garment.
Item—payd for a stage for the demon,

In 1480:—

Item—payd for mendyng Pilats hat, .

Payd for mendyng the wyiv.le,.

Payd for a new roppe for the wynd,


Payd for pare of angyllys wynges,

There are instances of these plays being performed as late as 1817 and 1822 in different places, but maybe the above quotations will suffice on this head. Though it became necessary to leave out the religious character of these plays in this country, yet the people would not let go the amusement they afforded, and they were turned into secular observances, as we have already seen.

The well--known institution Mari Lwyd has nowhere been kept in Wales so like the original as in Gwent and Morganwg, assuming one's supposition as to its source to be correct. In other districts of Wales we only find a few indistinct traces of the thing. Looking to North Wales, all we find there as having relation to Mari Lwyd is the custom of "giving a skull," as it is there called, which is as follows:—Young men go in search of a horse's or an old ass's head. The latter is preferable if it can be found. If there be a woman to whom they wish to show incivility, or on whom wish to wreak vengeance for some unkindness, the horse or the ass's head (as it chances to be) is hung up in some place by the time she gets up on the first of May. Unless matters turn out successful by that date, the ceremony is delayed until May Day, a fortnight later. Sometimes the skull is put up on the door, at other times over above it. Generally, the men folk are up early on that day in order to find whether a skull has been left for a woman or for the women there, and read the name or names it heads, lest the woman gets about first and throw the skull away, and spoil the whole game. Having discovered that a skull has been left, the fact excites merriment and laughter to the whole company, family, or neighbourhood at the expense of the woman or women who may have been unfortunate enough to have been presented with a skull. Sometimes several skulls are found at one house, all intended for the same woman. But when a young man wishes to show his respect and kindness to a woman, he prepares a bouquet of pretty flowers, which he places in some convenient place above the door, as in the case of the skull, that the bonnie lass who is thus the object of affection may find it on the morrow. It would appear that it was from Mari Lwyd or the Feast of the Ass this curious custom of giving a skull must have been derived, and that the giving of a she ass's skull at first signified a taunt or charge of some shameful practices on the part of the woman. The skull represented the Virgin Mary, Mari Lwyd pure and holy, as contra--distinguished from all impurity, unchastity, or any other uncleanness, and in strong contrast to the woman who becomes the object of disrespect. Also it would seem that the date was changed from Christmas to May Day in order (it being the season of the floralia) to get a time of year convenient at once to express honour by the giving of flowers, and dishonour by the presentation of the skull, thus emphasising the distinction made by the contrast that is between the two.

Looking at matters in other districts in the Principality,Dyfedr which contains the counties of Carmarthen, Cardigan, and Pembroke or Radnor, and the extreme point of Brecknock, contains but few traces of Mari Lwyd, or any of the feasts mentioned above. There we find the wooden horse brought into use to mark infidelity on the part of the husband or the wife. Doubtless the idea sprang from the same source as the skull custom in North Wales; Mary, on account of her purity, being placed in contrast with the publicly immoral, or those thought to be so.

The wooden horse ceremony is performed in this manner:—Having discovered that conjugal infidelity exists in the neighbourhood, without waiting for a certain fixed season of the year, such as Christrnastide or May Day, to notify the fact, the intended disrespect is shown as soon as possible. A wooden horse is prepared, a number of people congregate together, bringing with them all the necessary instruments, such as old frying--pans, and tin vessels, horns to blow in, with everything calculated to make sufficient noise, so as to give publicity to the disgrace of the offenders. We seem to see the crowd now approaching the house of the guilty party, armed with all the implements above mentioned. The evil--doer has already seen them coming, who, feeling guilty and aware of the custom, needs no prophet to tell him the purport of this visit of the populace who have come to do him "honour." However, he is determined to bolt and secure the door, so that not a living soul can come in. But the friends are not to be thus defeated in their object. They make for the door, burst it open, and bring out the culprit, whom they set on the back of the wooden horse. Some person known for his wit and eloquence is appointed spokesman, whose duty it becomes to relate the sins of the fellow who sits on his wooden horse in a conspicuous place. Then the din commences, in one clamorous chorus, no matter whether grave or gay the character of the rattle and noise of the vessels and the horns, alt that is cared for is the quantity and not the quality of the hubbub. The tin vessels are beaten furiously and the blasts of the horns are terrible. The procession wends its way through the principal streets, and in order to give the discipline a religious finishing, the crowd make for the church, and turn three times round the sacred edifice. This turning round the church has ceased in some places, but was a common practice some forty years ago in administering this mode of punishment. But should the offender escape, or in some way elude his pursuers, the spokesman then would mount the wooden horse. Occasionally, also, the guilty parties were placed together on the back of the horse. This custom is in full swing up to now, at least in some neighbourhoods. We recently read an account of a similar event in Cardigan, and the matter in the end went to the law court. The case was reported in "Cronicl y Cymry." There still prevails in Pembrokeshire, and in certain localities in the adjoining counties, a custom which, doubtless, is related to Mari Lwyd, for all that one can make out. We refer to the custom locally known as "mynwenta" o r"penwenta." It is difficult to make out the meaning of the word in this relation, but the custom has so many features like Mari Lwyd that it is thought the two were originally identical. In country places farmers are so scattered that young folk are unable to meet each other except occasionally. But about the spring or beginning of May, when the farmer brings a cart--load or two of corn to be ground in the mill, it is customary to attend to the task the night through. Young people of both sexes are told, somewhat privately, that the "mynwent" or "penwent"of so--and--so is to be at the mill on such and such a night. Then a horse's head is prepared in a manner similar to that in use in acting Mari Lwyd, so that it can be made to open and bite. Dialogues and every kind of merriment follow, very much the same as in Mari Lwyd, as will be more fully explained again. The practice may have fallen into disuse now. My informant had himself been engaged in this kind of play some thirty years ago.

Another custom is also met wiih in those parts of Wales, called "Bwca Llwyd," which must have been derived from Mari Lwyd, not only on account of the name, but also because of the similarity of features in both institutions. This custom is as follows:—A horse's head made of canvas is prepared. This is painted and stuffed with hay. A hay fork, the blades covered over with leather, does duty for ears, the handle being manipulated by the person inside, who guides the movements of the head as he wishes. I am told that this is taken round on All Hallow's Eve. It will thus be seen that the time at which Bwca Llwyd is played does not coincide with either the Saturnalia or the Floralia, but follows the sports and pastimes observed at the season of All Saints. The bonfire or coelcerth night in the North, Scotland, and other places, nut cracking, eating apples, candle lighting, with several other amusements, seem to have sprung partly from Druidic and partly from mediaeval rituals. It cannot now be ascertained why "Bwca Llwyd" is played at this time of the year in particular.

We now come to the Mari Lwyd institution, as performed in Gwent and Morganwg, as well as in some parts of Brecknockshire, &c.

The chief theatre of the custom is Monmouth and Glamorgan, and this name is used only in those parts. Proceed we to describe the play as acted in its greatest splendour by the Gwent folks themselves. As may be seen the Feasts of Balaam's Ass, and the flight of Joseph and Mary with the child to Egypt, with the dialogues spoken by the several characters in the different religious dramas performed during the festive seasons, form features of the Mari Lwyd play. Before Christmas comes round the young folk look out for the head of a horse, or a mare, or that of a he ass or she ass. It is worthy of notice that the head employed some time ago, was invariably that of an ass, but now it is of no importance whether it be that of an ass or a horse, both being indiscriminately used. Having found a head, a wooden arrangement is provided in lieu of a jaw, which has a spring attached so as to enable it to open and shut, at the command of the manipulator, to bite people, to eat grass, to neigh and do other things besides speaking. The head is decorated with ribands of various colours, and feathers are placed on the few parts remaining undecorated. The head is provided with a mane, and a pole is driven through instead of a backbone. A canvas cover is placed over the and also over the man who steers the apparatus, which is now called a"Mari Lwyd,"and is the principal actor in the play. The frame--work is made to resemble a real head as closely as possible, and now the remaining characters are appointed. These sometimes are four singers, with, perhaps, two to represent Punch and Judy. Two of the characters are called sergeant and corporal. But these are not invariably the same. Sometimes one of these plays a fiddle and does the work of merryman. Thus the number, the work, or the costume of the actors is not uniformly the same. The costumes of all concerned, if possible, are clean and tidy, and gaily dressed with ribbons, and sometimes broad and pretty sashes are worn round the waist. The company start on Christmas eve, and are engaged in the play for a fortnight, three weeks, or even a month.

The play is conducted in the following fashion:—Having arrived, say, at some respectable house, the six men—Mari Lwyd, the leader, the sergeant, the merryman, and Punch and Judy—now start singing short verses craving for admittance. The husband, or someone else inside acquainted with the play responds, and refuses entrance. Should the person inside show greater aptitude than the Mari Lwyd without, or the person versifying, then it is legitimate to keep the party out of the house altogether. But usually, after a lengthy dialogue, they are permitted to go in. Instances are known of such dialogues being conducted for an hour or more. The following is a specimen of the dialogue in use:—

* For the literal translation of these verses we are indebted to Mr. T. C. Evans (Cadrawd), in whose"History of Llangynwyd,"a variant can be seen at p. 161.

Mari Lwyd (Loq.)


1 Wel, dyma ni'n dwad,

Gyfeillion diniwad,

I mofyn am genad

I ganu.


2 Whech o wyr hawddgar,

Rhai gora ar y ddciar,

I ganu mewn gwirar

Am gwrw.


3. Ma ffashwn cwnsela,

Er's mil of flynydda,

A hyny miwn ffurfia,

Gwna brofi.


4. Cenwch eich gora,

Felly gnaf fina,

A'r sawl a fo ora

Geiff gwrw.





5. Mae'm dawn I'n cynhyrfu

Wrth feddwl am ganu,

Y nos yn y gwely

Mi goeliaf.


6. Mi ganaf am wythnos,

A hefyd bythewnos,

A mis os bydd achos,

Baidd ichwi.


7. O, tapwch y faril,

Gollngwch yn rhigil

Na fyddweh ry gynnil

I ganwyr.


8. Mae mari Lwyd lawen,

Am ddod I'ch  ty'n rhonten,

A chanu yw 'I diben,

Mi dybiaf.

1. Well, here we come,

Innocent friends,

Asking permission

To sing.


2.Six amicable fellows,

The best upon earth,

And truly to sing

For beer.


3. The fashion of wassailing

Is since a thousand years

An old form (or custom)

I can prove.


4. You sing your best,

And so will I,

And whichever sings best

Shall have the beer.





5 I am moved by the gift in me

When thinking out my song,

Even at night in my bed,

This is true.


6. I can sing for a week,

Yea, for a fortnight,

Or a month, if required--

A challenge to you.


7. O, tap ye the barrel,

Let it run freely,

Do not be saving

To singers.


8. Mari Lwyd the cheerful,

A frisker, would enter,

And to sing is her object

I trow




* For the literal translation of these verses we are indebted to Mr. T. C. Evans (Cadrawd), in whose"History of Llangynwyd,"a variant can be seen at p. 161.

The Response (inside.)


9 Rhoweh glywed, wyr docthion,

Pa faint y'ch o ddynion,

A pheth, yn wych union,

Yw'ch enwa?


10. Rhoweh glywed, gyr difrad,

O b'le 'r y' ch chi'n dwad,

A pheth y'ch gofyniad,

Gaf enwi?


11. Mi gwnas o'r gwely,

Gan lwyr benderfynu,

Y gwnawn i dy facddu

Di'n foddus.


12. ' dwn gwiw I chwi scwto,

A chwnu'r latch heno,

Waith pyrdydd diguro

Wyf, gwiriaf.


13. I ffwrdd a chi'r Hadron,

Ewch ymaeth yn union,

Ni chewch chi yn hylon

Fy ngwelad.

9 Let us hear, wise men,

The number you are,

And what your names may be



10. Let us hear, not treacherous men,.

From whence you come,

And what is it you ask,

We demand.


11. * I rose from my bed

Fully determined

Of beating you



12. You need not push

And raise the latch to--night,

Because I am an unbeaten poet,

And that I will prove


13. Away with you, robbers,

Depart at once,

You shall not merrily

See me.


From Without


Mi ganaf am flwyddyn,

Os caf fi Dduw'm canlyn,

Heb ofni un gelyn

Y gwylia.

14. I will sing for a twelvemonth,

If God will follow me,

Without fear of any foe

This holiday.




From Within.


15. Mac Jenkins, y fleirad,

Yn dyfod, ar fenad,

Gna fe I chi fynad

O f'annedd

15. Jenkins, the parson,

Is coming, upon my soul,

He will make you go

From my dwelling.




Then Mari Lwyd advances, to leader taking hold of the rein, and before the house is entered, some verses like the following are sung:----

From Without

16. Y tylwyth teg o'r teulu,

A ddewch chi I'r gola heb gelu,

I weld y wassel yn ddiath,

Ni does ei bath yn Nghymru.



17. Mae'n berlian o lydan floda,

O lwyrfryd heirdd a lifra,

Rhibana gwyehion, brithion braf,

A lunikwyd yn ddolena.




18. Mae'n gaseg lwyswedd wisgi,

Mae miloedd yn 'I moli,

Ei phen yn gnotog enwog iawn,

O foddion llawn difaeddu.



19. Daw'r sergeant gwych a'I gwimni,

Yn wrol I'n blacnori,

At ye gwaith mae eto I'w ga'l

Wych, wastad gorpral gwisgi.


20 Daw'r oslar gyda'r gaseg,

A ledia hon yn landeg,

A'I ffrwyn n'I gyfrwy gydag e,

I rodio'r lle dan redeg.


21. Daw hefyd Bwnch a Shuan,

Ar unwaith o'r un anian,

Dau filan draw, 'run lliw a'r drwg,

Neu'r annedd fwg ei hunan.


22. Yn awr 'rwy'n darfod cannu,

Rhowch imi I ymborthi,

Blwyddyn newydd dda I chi gyd,

A phawb o'r byd serch hyny.

16. The good people of the family

Will you bring a light from your biding,

To see the wassail without shock

(or painful sensation),

'There is not like unto her in all Wales.


17. She is an orchard of flowers,

Displaying beautiful livery,

Gay ribbons of many colours,

Artfully tied up in knots.





18. She is a mare of holy and brisk appearance,

There are thousands praising her,

Her head eminently knotted

With material which cannot be surpassed.


19. The brave sergeant and his company

Will boldy lead us,

And for the work we also have

A gallant and an alert corporal.


20. The ostler attending the mare

Will lead her comely and fair,

Bringing with him his bridle and saddle,

To step the pace and run about ( or trot around.)


21. There will be also a Punch and Judy,

Both of the same instinct,

Two villainds of the colour of the evil one,

Or of the chimney place itself.


22. Now, my song is ended,

Allow us to be feasted,

A good New Year to you all,

And all the world"for all that."







Aftewards Mari Lwyd goes in, first to the women, with puffing, snorting, neighing, pretending shying, and showing various equine antics, besides conversing.  The merryman with his fiddle follows, performing every funny trick he can. They then sing the verse----


Wel, dyma'r hoenus feinwen,

Sy'n codi gyda'r seren;

A hon wy'r wassail wych ei chlod,

Sy'n caru body n llawen.

Here is the blithesome maiden

Who rises with the star,

She is the wassail of far fame

And loveth to be merry.




Then Judy comes, carrying a broom to sweep the hearth. After her walks Punch, and throws Judy down. A scuffle ensues. Punch afterwards kisses the women, and Judy pursues him with her broom.  Then, having sung, danced, and played sufficiently long, all sit at the table, and are treated to meat and drink.  Having acted the whole drama they sing:----


Duw rhoddo I'ch lawenydd

I gynnal blwyddyn newydd;

Tra b'o crwth a thincian cloch,

Gwell, well, y b'och chwi beunydd.


Ffarweliwch, foneddigion,

Ni gawsom roesaw ddigon;

Bendith Duw f'o ar eich tai,

A phob rhyw rhai o'ch dynion.

May God give you happiness

With the new year;

As long as crwth or bells shall  sound

May you fare better daily.


Farewell unto you, gentlemen,

Our welcome has been plenteous;

Blessing of God be on your home,

And each one of your people.

* In these verses singular and plural are mixed up; this is accounted for by the

way the answers were given: when the Wassailers sung together the introductory

verses they sung"we,"but when it came to"fioncio"—making rhymes at the

time in answer to each other—it was left to one, and he, of course, would say,"I, rose from my bed,"&c.

The description of the action of this improvised drama, and the opening verses given above, in which many expressions witness to an ancient origin, have led the writer to connect the custom with the festivals fully illustrated in the early portion of the essay, and thus Mari Lwyd (Blessed Mary) reminds us of the flight to Egypt and the equine or asinine discourse of the Feast of Balaam's Ass, while the dialogues and characters recall Coventry with its mysteries and other dramatic representations.

Note: Bibliography, &c.—In addition to the information given by this article, further notices may be found in a paper by the late Mr. David Jones, of Wallingford, in"Archseologia Cambrensis"for 1888, p. 389; in"British Goblins,"by the Hon. Wirt Sikes, and in"The History of Llangynwyd Parish,"by Mr. T. C. Evans  (drawd), 1887, p. 161 (all in the Cardifl Free Library.) At the Cardiff Museum, in the"Old Fashion Collection,"may be seen a specimen of the ornamental horse's head used in the custom of"Mari Lwyd,"which was obtained by Mr. T. C. Evans for illustration of the paper by Mr. D. Jones above cited.

-- Roberts, The Rev. W., (Neeydd), "The Mari Lwyd and its Origin", Trans.: W. Eilir Evans, In: Reports and Transactions-- Cardiff Naturalists' Society, Vol. 28--34, 1896 p. 80.

Mary Lwyd, Wirt Sikes, 1881. 


Among Twelfth Night customs, none is more celebrated than that called Mary Lwyd. It prevails in various parts of Wales, notably in lower Glamorganshire. The skeleton of a horse's head is procured by the young men or boys of a village, and adorned with 'favours' of pink, blue, yellow, etc. These are generally borrowed from the girls, as it is not considered necessary the silken fillets and rosettes should be new, and such finery costs money. The bottoms of two black bottles are inserted in the sockets of the skeleton head to serve as eyes, and a substitute for ears is also contrived. On Twelfth Night they carry this object about from house to house, with shouts and songs, and a general cultivation of noise and racket. Sometimes a duet is sung in Welsh, outside a door, the singers begging to be invited in; if the door be not opened they tap on it, and there is frequently quite a series of aiven sung, the parties within denying the outsiders admission, and the outsiders urging the same. At last the door is opened, when in bounces the merry crowd, among them the Mary Lwyd, borne by one personating a horse, who is led by another personating the groom. The horse chases the girls around the room, capering and neighing, while the groom cries, 'So ho, my boy—gently, poor fellow!' and the girls, of course, scream with merriment. A dance follows—a reel, performed by three young men, tricked out with ribbons. The company is then regaled with cakes and ale, and the revellers depart, pausing outside the door to sing a parting song of thanks and good wishes to their entertainers.

The penglog (a skull, a noddle) is a similar custom peculiar to Aberconwy (Conway) in Carnarvonshire. In this case the horse's skull is an attention particularly bestowed upon prudes.

Mary Lwyd may mean Pale Mary, or Wan Mary, or Hoary Mary, but the presumption is that it means in this case Blessed Mary, and that the custom is of papal origin. There is, however, a tradition which links the custom with enchantment, in connection with a warlike princess, reputed to have flourished in Gwent and Morganwg in the early ages, and who is to be seen to this day, mounted on her steed, on a rock in Rhymney Dingle.1

1Vide W. Robcrts's ' Crefydd yr Oesocdd Tywyll,

--Sikes, Wirt, British Goblins: Welsh Folk Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions, 1881, p. 256.




Mari Lwyd, Thomas Christopher Evans,1887

Wassailing.This again was a new year's custom, and was the occasion of most elaborate preparations of the "Mari Lwyd" (Holy Mary), the actors in which were the following:—First and foremost was the head of a horse fantastically decked with ribbons, and draped with white. Beneath the drapery was concealed the bearer of this "Mari," whose duty it was to make the necessary genuflexions and bows outside the doors of those who were visited, while "Punch and Judy"—also dressed in character—accompanied him, as well as a party of men, chiefly selected for being ready rhymesters, witty companions, and for having a most exemplary thirst. The party, thus composed, halted at the doors where they believed they would be welcomed, and where good cheer was usually bestowed. At their coming the doors would always be found closed and barred.

The whole party then began (to a tune that seems to be somewhat doleful, although it must be owned melodious,) to chant some introductory verses,—craving, first of all, for permission to sing; then recounting the perils and trials of the journey thither; and most feelingly concluding with an appeal to those within, to be liberal with the cake, and especially to tap the barrel, and distribute its contents freely. To this, those inside the house would reply—pleading that they had no cake, no beer, no anything; upon which those outside would again most pathetically entreat the mercies of the season.

Upon this would commence a conflict of wits,—those inside proposing in rhyme, sung to the tune aforesaid, riddles, or questions to those outside, and being answered by them in rhyme also. Most important it was that each party should be ready in their wit, adepts at rhyming, and able to mix a little sarcasm with the dialogue which they conducted. This conflict of wits was carried on till one party was defeated. If those outside were the conquerors, they were admitted to the house, the wassailing bowl was produced, and the feast was commenced. One of the ancient wassailing bowls is still preserved at the Vicarage. It has a capacity of about a gallon and a half; it has eighteen handles, but some are now knocked off. Each of the company took hold of a handle, and in turns drank—probably enunciating some verse, or toast, previously.

The following are a few specimens of the introductory rhymes, sung in the Parish:

Wei, dyma ni'n dwad,

Gyfcillicm diniwad,

I ofyn cawn genad—i ganu.

Os na chawn ni genad,

Rhowch glywed ar ganiad,

Pa fodd mae'r 'madawiad—nos heno.

Ni dorson era crimpa',
With groesi'r sticeila',
In dyfod tnag yma—Dos heno. . —--

Os aethoch rhy gynar,

I'r gwely'n ddialgar,

O codwch i'n bawddgar—roesawu.

Y deisen fras, felus,
A phob sort o spices,
O torwch hi'n radus—y gwyliau.

A thapwch y firil,

Gollyngwch yn rhigl,

A rbenwch e'n gynil—y gwyliau.

The challenge from without:—

Os oes yna ddynion,

All blethu englynion,

O rhowch i'n atebion—nos beno.

The following was sung, when the "Mari Lwyd" was introduced to the company inside --

Wel dyma'r hoeous feinwen,
Sy'n codi gyda'r scren;
A hoc yw'r Wassail wych ei chlod,
Sy'n caru bod yn llawen.

Before leaving, if the Wassailing Company had been hospitably entertained, they sang the following verses:—

Duw rhoddo i'ch lawenydd,
I gyoal blwyddyn newydd;
Tra b'o crwth a thincian cloch,
Well, well, y b'orh chwi beunydd.

Ffarweliwcli, foneddigion,
Ni gawsom roesaw ddigon;
Bendith Duw f'o ar eich tai,
A pbob rhyw rhai o'ch dynion.

--Evans, Thomas, Christopher, History of Llangynwyd Parish, 1887, p.160.

The Mari Lwyd: A Twelfth Night Custom, David Jones, 1888

The rapid decay and disappearance of old customs which the latter half of the nineteenth century has witnessed is a matter of such common observation that it has become the merest of truisms to speak of it. Many old observances which this century had inherited from a long line of predecessors have now ceased to be found even as "survivals"; if met with at all, I apprehend it would be only as "revivals", produced as something strange and rare for the amusement of the curious. Thus it has come to pass that the special local observances and rural pageantry which in Glamorganshire, on and about Twelfth Night, wound up the festivities of Christmastide, are no longer to be met with as part of the life of the people "Canu Gwassaila" and the going about with a "Mari Lwyd"—customs common enough in the forties and fifties of the century—must now, I suspect, be classed with the things of the past. Both customs — for they certainly were each of distinct origin—were known by the one name of"Canu Gwassaila", or even more commonly,"Singing Gwassaila."But, while the"Gwassailwyr"proper needed not to trouble themselves with providing a "Mari Lwyd" , those who went about with a"Mari Lwyd"were perforce obliged to “Sing Gwassaila." Singing was part of the performance, and tradition provided them with no other song. Of the two names, the first is self--explanatory: it is the"Singing of Wassail"; the second, in its application at least, is not very clear. The word "Lwyd" means "Blessed." How the name "Blessed Mary" has come to be applied to the skeleton of a horse's head, decked with ribbons and other finery, as will be presently described, is a question easier put than answered. An attempt, however, will be made to explain its application; and the conclusions arrived at may or may not be acceptable. What follows on this subject will be taken chiefly from a contribution of my own to a Glamorganshire newspaper in 1878—one of a series of papers on local folk--lore—in which the Christmas and Twelfth Night customs of Glamorganshire were dealt with at length. To the theory I then advanced I still adhere, and I fancy it has since been adopted elsewhere.

By the kindness of a friend at Llangynwyd there was exhibited at the late meeting of the Association at Cowbridge a very fair representation of a "Man Lwyd." It was not (as it turned out) a veritable "Mari" which had gone the ronnd of the parish, but had, in the previous winter, been specially got np to aid in the illustration of a lecture on Glamorganshire Customs delivered at Maesteg, and some of the details it had not been thought necessary to reproduce for the occasion.1 It was enough like in appearance to answer the purposes required.

The "Gwassailwyr" pure and simple were a body of rustics who enlivened the season, both for themselves and their neighbours, by going about from house to house singing the Wassail song. It was sufficient for the occasion if they blackened their faces, wore rough masks, or disguised themselves in any manner, and the rougher the disguise the better. One of them should be in woman's clothes, to play the part of "Bessy." Bossy carried a besom; the others had staves, with which, when the in--door fun began, they belaboured each other's sides and backs in a manner which would have been painful to behold if one had not known that each and all were pretty well protected by straw under their puffed--out garments. At the door of the house they wassailed they began with the following song, to a traditional tune, which I doubt not is still well known:—

I.                                                               III.

"0 dyma ni'n dywed                                    "0 tapwch y faril

 Gym'docon dinuwad,                                   Gyllynwch yn rhigill, &c.

I ofun cewn genad, &c                                  Nos heno..                                                           

I. ganu



II.                                                                          "A'r deishan             fr/as felus

"Os na chewn ni genad                                           A phob sort o         spisus

Ni drewn ar y nailldu, &c.                                        A gatwyd yn garcis, &c.

Nos heno.                                                              Y gwyla.


"Cei'r g/wyla mynd heibo                                              Ond ni sydd yn cofio, &c.

Heb neb dod i'ch cofio?                                                                      Nos heno!"

These were verses of obligation: when these had been sung then, possibly, would come the tug of war. It was a recognised part of

1The "Mari" which was exhibited has since been presented to the Museum at Cardiff, and I understand that the energetic Curator of that institution has since obtained another from Lantwit Major, which had seen actual service in that parish.

the custom that if any one inside the house replied, those outside must answer, and so a musical dialogue would be kept up until one or the other of the two parties would be unable to respond in impromptu verse. When at last they obtained admission, it would be well if ample space had been cleared for them in the kitchen or other suitable apartment wherein they might display their antics. A good deal of "horse--play"would be indulged in, for the licence extended to the season by prescription would be availed of to the utmost. They should by right have with them a wassail--bowl, or that which is, I believe, its proper Glamorganshire substitute, namely, a feol made of Ewenny ware; but the "survival" of these articles within the time to which my own memory extends was a common bucket, or even, it might be, a tin can! Whichever vessel it may have been, it would be passed round, or at least you would be offered a mugful of drink out of it, while it was of course expected that the master of the house would do his part in keeping it pretty well replenished from the"barrel", which in song they had already asked should be "tapped" for them. Finally, the jingling of coins in a battered tin vessel, which did duty for a money--box, would be heard, and when this appeal had been responded to the Wassailers would take their departure, singing ere they went a valedictory stanza outside the house door. The words of this closing verse I do not remember.

For the "Mari Lwyd" much greater preparation was required. Indeed, it took the long evenings of several weeks beforehand to get everything necessary for the success of the pageant, and put all in apple--pie order. Why, the "Mari Lwyd'' was the pride and admiration of the whole village! Everybody almost would have had a hand in the adorning of it and in decking out these "Gwassailwyr"—mothers, sisters, sweethearts—all!  The lads who formed the party came dressed not only in their"Sunday best", but in great bravery of ribbons of many colours (cheerfully lent them by the women) superadded to coats and hats. If ribbons were not abundant enough, the want would be supplied by a sort of frilling of coloured paper. The "Mari Lwyd" itself, however, has not been described. The basis of the structure was, as has already been stated, the skeleton of a horse's head. This was padded on the outer side, where the flesh had been, and then covered into shape with white calico. The jaw was so fastened as to move up and down easily, and could he--made to "bite" at the will of the man who played the part of"horse." Eyes were made out of the bottoms of broken beer--bottles carefully chipped round, while the ears would be of felt, leather, or any suitable material. The whole would be decked with"ribbons so plenty"that the"Mari"was indeed a sight to see! There was also some arrangement to give the appearance of a neck, and over this from the head there depended a long and large sheet or loose gown of calico, which served to conceal the young man who gave life to the "Mari." A smart "groom" had charge of the"animal", which he led by a long rein of wide scarlet braid. The number of the party would be regulated by liking or convenience, but they were usually about six. They also sang at each door they went to about three verses of the Wassail song already given; upon the fourth they changed from Welsh to English, thus:

"We've got a fine Mary,
She"s dressed very pretty
With ribbons so plenty

This Christmas."

This is how it would be managed in the bilingual district comprising the Vale of Glamorgan. In the northern parts of the county the singers continued in Welsh, thus:


"Mae Mari Lwyd yma
Mae'n werth i gael gola',
Yn llawno rhubana,

Y Gwyla!"

After this intimation it was not usual to challenge them to a musical parley from the inside; they were generally admitted at once. They brought with them no "survival“ of the wassail bowl, such as we have seen the"Gwassailwyr"proper had, as an inseparable adjunct to their perambulations, and their proceedings indoors were of a more orderly character than what has been already described. Still there was a good deal of romping. If there were any young women about, they came in for the not very welcome attentions of "Mari" , who ran after them, pretending to bite, and so forth. It was all meant in harmless fun, and the whole proceedings generally promoted a good deal of it. They would have beer given to them, and, possibly, a piece of cake each. They, too, had a money--box. On leaving, the strain sung by this party, at the door, was—

"God bless the ruler of this house,
And send him long to reign,
And many a merry Christmas
May he live to see again.

And God send you a happy new year."

There seems to have been, eighty or one hundred years ago, a sort of unwritten law that the "Mari Lwyd" of one parish should not intrude within the bounds of another. If this were done the intruding party did so at its peril; for if it were so met by a "Mari Lwyd" party of the parish intruded upon there would be a battle royal between them, and each would do its best to destroy the "Mari Lwyd" of the other.

It will, I think, be at once conceded that in this rustic pageant of the "Mari Lwyd", or the"Blessed Mary", we have had amongst us the survival of part of some ancient popular rite or ceremony. Is it not the last remnant of the once highly popular "Festival of the Ass"? This festival was held on the 14th January, and commemorated the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. An ass decked in rich robes or trappings was led to the high altar of the parish church, and a special service performed in its honour, the responses to which were an imitation of the hee--hawing of the animal itself. After this ceremony a girl and child, personating the Virgin and Child, mounted the ass and were taken round the parish. A wooden ass was sometimes used, and lay figures representing the Mother and Child placed thereon. In either case the perambulation of the parish seems to have been an essential part of the proceedings. What more likely, then, than that the"Blessed Mary", which so many generations of our Glamorganshire lads took so much pains to get up, deck so bravely, and carry from house to house with so much mirth and revelry—a horse's head with a man concealed under it—was a direct representative of the animal on which the "Mary" of olden time made a tour of the parish upon? Adopt this view, and the name"Mary"appears as a natural heritage which clung to the fragmentary part of the paraphernalia of the old festival which descended to our own time. As the "Festival of the Ass" was very commonly observed in pre--Reformation times, we might expect to find that traces of it remained to a late period in other parts of the kingdom besides Glamorganshire. I have discovered that it was not unknown in Moumouthshire; that, however, is very near our own borders. But there are evidences of somewhat similar"survivals"in places as remote as Lancashire on the one hand, and Kent on the other. In Lancashire they amused themselves on Twelfth Night by carrying round the semblance of a horse's head; while in Kent they still, I believe, "go a hodening" on this night, the "hoden" being a horse's head carved in wood, which is carried about to the accompaniment of carol singing and hand--bell ringing.

Objection may perhaps be taken to the solution here offered on the ground that the day of the celebration of the"Festival of the Ass"did not coincide with the "Festival of the Epiphany";  that the two observances were distinct, and were never likely to be commingled. Whether there is a lack of likelihood in this or not, I have, I think, shown pretty plainly that the Twelfth Night customs of Glamorganshire were of a twofold character, certainly of a twofold origin, and were partially, at least, commingled. We must remember that in pre--Reformation times the festivities of the Christmas season were kept up until Candlemas. After the Reformation the natural tendency of the times was to shorten them. Herrick, however, gives us to understand that in his time the Christmas decorations were kept up until the Feast of the Purification. The Puritans, as we know, did what they could to abolish Christmas revellings altogether. They were powerless to do this, from the hold which these had upon the minds and affections of the people. But they accomplished two things: (1) they shortened the duration of the period of licence and buffoonery; and, as a natural consequence, they (2) displaced and threw into some confusion the several popular observances which had served to mark  the prolonged course of the festival. The processon of  the “Blessed Mary” was of too popular a character to be thrown aside altogether; rather, therefore, than lose it, the day of its celebration was thrown back by popular consent ten days in the calendar, and was held on (and after) the 6th of January, instead of the l3th, and was allowed to share the honours of Twelfth Night rejoicings with the "Gwassaila."

Of wassailing itself much might be said, both as to the mode in which the custom was observed in Wales, and also under the wider view of its observance throughout the country. This, however, I will not touch upon. It will be sufficient to say that there are several Welsh wassailing songs in existence, Miss Jane Williams of Aberpergwn has preserved two for us in the collection of Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morganwg, published at Landovery in 1843, namely,"Y Washael", at p. 30, and "Hyd yma Bu'n cerdded", at p. 31. Hone, too, in his Ancient Mysteries Explained, gives the translation of a very curious one by "Thomas Evans", which is well worth study for the allusions it contains, and which I elsewhere have attempted to analyse. These are in print, and accessible to all. The inquirer who wishes to pursue the subject further will, if he is industrious, find several more in manuscript.

I ought, perhaps, to add that since the meeting at Cowbrulge I have been shown a Welsh essay upon the"Mari Lwyd", but was not able to do more than glance at it. I regret to say that I did not note, and do not remember, the author's name. It would seem to have been published about 1882. The wassailing song contained several more verses than I have given; but the greater part were quite new to me, and I venture to think would not be generally known in Glamorganshire.

--Jones, David, "The Mari Lwyd: a Twelfth Night Custom", Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1888, p.389.

Mari Lwyd, The Link to Wassail and Origins, --C. Lorwerth Peate (1943)


1.               Peate describes wassailing outside of Glamorganshire. Peate equates wassailing with Mari Lwyd house visiting customs.

2.               In Carmarthenshire,  Mari Lwyd is called  “Y Warsel (The Wassail).”

3.               In Anglesey the custom “cau yn y drws” or “singing at the door” is similar to the Mari Lwyd. Young men went from house to house. They sang carols and asked to come in. Once they were inside they were given beer and cakes. This was also done in Cardiganshire.

4.               Peate notes that according to  Edward Jones, “canu dan bared” or “Singing under a wall” is "common in Merionethshire on Christmas Eve.  If the people under the pared have the superiority in singing and wit, they claim admittance into the house, and a right to participate in the fare of it.”

5.               J.H. Davies correctly assumes that “Mari Lwyd” was just a south Wales variation of a country-wide custom. 

6.               In regard to “Welsh Wassail-songs” or “Canu Gwirod:”

They are linked to “Gwyl Fair” or “the Festival of Mary” or “Gwyly Nadolig” or “Christmas.” Peate cites Parry Williams who had quoted a wassail song which began:


Arfer y nydolig yw

rhodio/r/ nos Ile bytho gwiw

I edrych ple bo diod dda…



(“the Christmas custom is to roam at night where it is meet to look for a place where there is good drink…”)



7.               The festival of Mary described above was “Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau” or the “Festival of Mary of the candles, the Purification of Mary, the 3rd of February.” This was also linked to Christmas.  This association led to the titling of a wassail song: “Can Gwirod neu Wyl Fair” or “Drinking Song or the Festival of Mary” which was most likely written by Gruffydd  Phylip, a poet of the early seventeenth-century. This song was published by Mr. W. Ll. Davies, librarian of the National Library of Wales in his study of the poet’s work. “It was a custom to bear drink at the Festival of the Virgin Mary at the beginning of spring.


Every happy man loves to remember with joy

Mary the daughter of Anna…

To her was born the son of the Just God on Christmas Day, revered festival. 

The Festival of Mary too is a delightful festival.

Mary went meetly to the church,

with virgins from the locality,

Their candles all alight,

The purification of Mary, all with their drink meeting her.

If God the Father gives us permission,

we shall drink to the dregs.

We shall drink the Health of the generous

without any mention of the misers…”


Peate notes that the poem demonstrates that:

a.                The “bearing of drink” was linked to the “beginning of Spring.”

b.                The custom had something to do with remembering Mary.

c.                Christmas was a “revered festival” associated with the custom.

d.                The festival referred to is only that of the Festival of the Candles and the Purification as is described.

8.               Peate notes that the term “wassail” with its meaning “be whole, be healthy” is inherently linked to the act of purification. This celebration occurred from December 25 to February 3.

9.               Peate notes that many songs begin with:


“Llyma wirod Mair yn dyfod

er mwyn Mair wen byddwch lawen


("Here comes Mary's drink, for the sake of holy Mary, be joyful"”.)


10.            It is noted that the Mari Lwyd verses begin with an introduction


Wel dyma ni'n dwad (Here we come) and a reference to the "joyful" state in Mari lwyd lawen (joyful Mari Lwyd.)


11.            A wassail song. “carol gwirod” cited by W. Ll. Davies. starts with this phrase. Because Wales tended to be “nonconformist.” medieval songs to Mary fell into disfavour. Because of this some of the controversial references were removed while non-controversial references remained.

12.             Peate notes that “Mairi” is the Welsh equivalent of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The word “Mari” meaning the colloquial form of the personal name Mary at one time was used to refer to the Holy Mother (in the “Black Book of Carmarthen” as well as in the poems of the bards and early Welsh princes).  It is found as well as “Mair” in wassail songs such as:


Y glan angel, hwn oedd Gabriel,

voi kyfarchodd...

kyfawn wy ti o ras, Mari.



(the fair angel, this was Gabriel, greeted her: thou art full of grace, Mary.)



13.            Peate notes that Parry-Williams suggested that the wassail songs are both “the development and the deterioration of a long--established custom.  At first there is the “pre-Christian” custom of initiation of the spring. This was then associated with Christian festivals held during the late winter and the festivals of Mary and her son which occurred in the early spring. This is reflected in the opening stanza of the song above:

Roedd yn ddefod mynd a gwirod

Gwyl fair forwyn ddechre gwanwyn.


(It was a custom to bear drink at the Feast of the Virgin Mary at the beginning of spring.")




14.            Peate proposes the following evolution: “The pre--Christian players emphasized the beginning of Spring; the Christian singers laid importance on the Feast of the Virgin Mary.  In time Mary's drink lost its former significance and connoted only feasting, drinking and play--acting.  The songs lost their medieval religious references and became catalogues of the food, drink and money which the players sought.”


--Peate, Lorwerth, C., "Mari Lwyd: A suggested Explanation", In: Man. Vol. 43, May--June, 1943, pp.53--58.



The Three Merry Dancers of Wales, Lois Blake (1958)


1.   Mrs. Lois Blake, President of the Welsh Folk Dance Society, writes:

“Mrs. Lowe's reference to the "three merry dancers of Wales"(JEFDSS, 1957, p. 80) is surprising.  The much quoted account in the Gentleman's Magazine, to which she refers, reads: "The merry dancers---usually three persons. Frequent, but no universal accompaniment of this merry dance, are the conspicuous but grotesque figures of "Punch and Judy."


2.   "Merry Dancers," or Punch and Judy, processed through Glamorganshire teaming up with wassailers to gain entrance to houses where they otherwise would not be welcome.

3.   A report in Archeologia Cambrensis, 1888, describes “two parties of Gwassailwyr (Wassailers.) The Gwassailwyr proper sang a Wassail song, carried a wassail bowl, and were roughly disguised with blackened faces.  They carried staves with which they beat each other,” "being well padded with straw under their puffed out garments."  Punch and Judy often cam with them.  They sang verses of the Wassail song, outside, sometimes having a musical contest. If those inside could not respond then the , Gwassailwyr  were admitted.

4.   Gwassailwyr also had Mari Lwyd men. They were dressed “in their best, but profusely decorated with ribbons.”  The Mari was  a horse's skull, mounted on a pole. It was carried by a man, “covered in a white cloth, was also decorated, being the pride of the village.”  The  same Wassail song was sung but  with an additional verse:----


"We've got a fine Mari, She's dressed very pretty,

With ribbons so plenty, This Christmas."


5.   In South West Glamorgan the Mari men were let right in without rhyming and there were no Punch and Judy.

6.   Mrs. Thomas of Nantgarw (N.E. Glamorgan) remembered observing the Mari Lwyd, often with the Punch and Judy. “Punch carried a long poker, with which he tapped the ground while singing went on.  Judy, the tallest man in the party, carried a broom and swept the ground, the door, the windows and any person who was incautious enough to come near.  Only a woman with a baby in her arms would be safe from the brushing.  If the inmates heard Punch, with his poker, outside, a rhyming contest was sure to ensue; and the rhymester inside would be careful to exact a promise that he would not rake out the fire.” When the Mari Lwyd men go in the horse leader would drop the reins and do a step dance with Punch and Judy. The Mari would champ her jaws while the rest of the group kept singing. The rhyming contest was to makes sure the Mari behaved but also to required the Punch and Judy to refrain from their antics.


 The "Three Merry Dancers of Wales" remain elusive; unless we identify them with the Mari men or the Mari Lwyd and her merry men.”


--Blake, Lois, "The Three Merry Dancers of Wales",  In: Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 8, No. 3, December, 1958. pp. 166--167.



The Mari Lwyd Song, Traditional

Well, gentle friends
Here we come
To ask may we have leave
To ask may we have leave
To ask may we have leave
To sing.

If we may not have leave,
Then listen to the song
That tells of our leaving
That tells of our leaving
That tells of our leaving

We have cut our shins
Crossing the stiles
To come here
To come here
To come here

If there are people here
Who can compose englynion
Then let us hear them now
Then let us hear them now
Then let us hear them now

If you've gone to bed too early
In a vengeful spirit,
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly

The large, sweet cake
With all kinds of spices:
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
This Christmas–tide.

O, tap the barrel
And let it flow freely;
Don't share it meanly
Don't share it meanly
Don't share it meanly
This Christmas–tide.

--National Museum of Wales,

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