I tend to meditate on issues of self-identify with my Irish ancestry. My aunt Dukey sent me a Christmas present the other day reminding me to do a little more contemplation on my Welsh ancestry.

She sent me a black tee shirt with a strangely familiar image and cryptic saying below it.  The image is of a figure draped in a white sheet with a horse skull and the saying is “Y Fari Lwyd”. Thank goodness for the Internets! The phrase is Welsh for “The Mari Lwyd”, or literally “Gray Mare”.

It’s a pagan tradition based around a contraption known as a Mari.  A horse skull is placed on a wooden pole, and then it is draped with a sheet (to hide the person carrying the pole, or symbolically I imagine the motive force behind the manifestation).

The eye sockets are often decorated with shiny objects like colored glass.  The skull is usually decorated with colored ribbons. Some skulls have spring-loaded lower jaws that can be used to snap at passers-by.

I’m reminded of the Hobby Horse from the original Wicker Man on that one, snapping at pretty girls. I also remember now that similar creatures were used by the ultimate darkness character of Evil in Time Bandits to chase the protagonists. Basically Mari with hooked, bony claws that shot fireballs out of their eyes.  Weird!

Back to the actual tradition.  A party gathers around the Mari and they go door to door, exchanging songs and in some cases rhyme contests (called Pwnco in Welsh) with the occupants of various houses. The battle of wits and song can get rather furious, with the party extorting gifts of libations (among other things) from the occupants. Or the occupants manage to drive the party off to the next house over with their superior skill.

This is what I call Christmas Caroling!

With the resurgence of interest in Celtic culture, the tradition has been revived in recent years. Perhaps this knowledge has galloped my way so that I might make use of it.  I do enjoy making up lyrics of a sing-songy nature to amuse my friends.  I’m thinking I might just build my own Mari for next year and see what comes up.

Thanks Duke.