Imagine that you are sitting in front of a fire on a frosty night sometime in the twelve days after Christmas when you hear a knock at the door. It could be neighbors with treats, or perhaps carolers looking for a pot of hot wassail. Or, if you’re in Wales, it may be a horse skull with glowing eyes and a long white cloak hoping to challenge you to a rhyming contest so it can come inside to raid your pantry and wine cellar.
On the Second Day of Imported Christmas, we made a Mari Lwyd to celebrate midwinter like our Welsh ancestors. Turns out it’s harder than you might think to find an actual horse skull in Utah. Fortunately, Gordon found Trac Cymru, a Welsh folk development organization that has created a flatpack cardboard version with international shipping.
The origins of the Mari Lwyd are a subject of debate, but references to this wassailing tradition go back as far as the early nineteenth century. Neighbors gather to decorate the Mari with ribbons, bells, and pieces of glass for eyes. One member of the party hides under a white sheet trailing from the back of the skull, then leads the group around the village to houses and pubs.
At each door, the Mari Lwyd and her attendants sing rhyming verses, then wait for the inhabitants to respond in kind. The first group to run out of songs and rhymes loses. If you lose to the Mari Lwyd, you have to let the group of singers in and provide them with food and drink. Bright side, tradition has it that having the Mari Lwyd in your house brings luck and drives out evil spirits, which is probably worth the victuals you’ll give away.
Our Mari Lwyd kit from Trac Cymru came with the cardboard structure, instructions and a book with information on the folk tradition and a series of songs in both Welsh and English for wassailing. The Trac Cymru site also has video instructions to help with assembly.
The actual construction didn’t take long and was fairly straightforward. The more time-consuming part was tearing small circles of white paper and using craft glue to coat the entire surface to make it look more like the bones of an actual horse skull.
Once everything dried, we added the string mechanism to control the jaw and attached a long white sheet to the back. We then decorated the Mari Lwyd with ornaments, bells and ribbons from the craft store to make the whole thing more festive (and a little bit less terrifying).
If you decide to make a Mari Lwyd of your own and don’t live in Wales, I suggest you warn your neighbors before showing up at their house with your skull in hand and songs on deck.
Interested in learning about more international Christmas traditions? Follow our 12 Days of Imported Christmas:
Twelve Days of Imported Christmas
- The First Day: Christmas-Stuffed Turkey Piñata and Other Season-Starting Traditions
- The Second Day: Mari Lwyd—Wales’ Rhyming Horse Skull Puppet
- The Third Day: Christingle—England’s Citrus Candlestick
- The Fourth Day: Spanish Christmas Tapas
- The Fifth Day: Jólakötturinn—The Icelandic Christmas Cat
- The Sixth Day: Churchkhela—Georgia’s Christmas Candle Treat
- The Seventh Day: Christkindlmarkt—Germany’s Christmas Markets