Happy New Year!

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The Mari Lwyd

This lively way of marking the New Year originates from the south east of Wales, particularly Gwent and Glamorgan. The Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare) is a horse’s skull carried on a stick and decorated with rosettes and coloured ribbons. It is usually draped in white cloth or lace to conceal the pole and person carrying the Mari. The lower jaw is often spring-loaded so that the operator can ‘snap’ at passers-by.

During the ceremony, the Mari party would go from door to door singing traditional songs in an attempt to gain entry to the house. A contest would ensue between the inhabitants and the group outside; this contest was known as pwnco. These verses were sung in turn and were usually full of leg-pulling and joking, with the contestants mocking each other’s singing, drunkenness and so on. The pwnco was usually followed by admission to the house for refreshments and more revelry before continuing to the next house in the village.

The Mari Lwyd is a particular example of wassailing, the custom of going from door to door singing Christmas carols. Mari Lwyd was a variation on this custom which pre-dates the celebration of Christmas.

During the nineteenth century, the Mari Lwyd was affected by the influence of the chapel on daily life. The custom was deemed inappropriate as the parties had gained a reputation for drunkenness and unruly behaviour and congregations were encouraged to take part in more appropriate activities such as eisteddfodau. Though some areas continued to uphold the tradition into the 1920s and 1930s, it was often in an altered form, with the rowdier verses replaced by Christmas carols. By the 1960s, the tradition had died out almost completely.

However, in recent years, the Mari Lwyd has been resurrected in some parts of Wales such as Gwent, Glamorgan and Meirionnydd, with members of folk societies eager to practice the old tradition. In Dinas Mawddwy, in Meirionydd, for example, the Mari Lwyd visits three pubs in the area rather than local houses.


The giving of gifts on New Year’s Day is an ancient custom and in Wales the tradition is to collect Calennig, (New Year’s gift). Children would go from house to house wishing all a happy new year, usually by singing short verses such as,

‘Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi,

Ac i bawb sydd yn y ty,

Dyna yw nymuniad i,

Ar ddechrau’r flwyddyn hon.’ 

Traditionally, this would be done before midday and the children would receive gifts of bread and cheese or a new coin for their trouble. The custom’s origins can be traced back to the Middle Ages but the first instance of Calennig in its present form was recorded in the nineteenth century. It was customary for the children to carry with them apples decorated with corn and sprigs of evergreen which represented the health that they wished in their verses. This part of the ritual was later forgotten and the children merely sang their verses in return for small gifts. Another example of a calennig verse is this one sung in Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire:

Mi godais heddiw ma’s o’m tŷ

A’m cwd a’m pastwn gyda mi,

A dyma’m neges ar eich traws,

Sef llanw’m cwd â bara a chaws.

(I left my house today,

With my bag and my stick,

And here is my message to you,

Fill my bag with bread and cheese.)