The Mari Lwyd painting above the entrance to the old Llanover Post Office was commissioned by Lady Llanover in about 1860 to illustrate an old Welsh custom which once prevailed in many parts of Wales. It shows the front of Llanover Court lit by a crescent moon. Approaching the entrance, is a young man leading a white clad figure, with a horse’s skull on his head and In the dim half light can be seen other, shadowy figures following them. Fortunately the painting is glazed so despite its age the colours are still good.
The reason why the painting is on this building is that it was once a village inn called Penceiffel (‘The Nags Head’ and the painting used to be the inn sign. It was one of seven on the Llanover estate, but Lady Llanover, a fervent teetotaller, had them closed down and turned into coffee houses. The other pubs were called, Pen Gofriwyd, Gwesty, Ty’r Eos, Seren Gobaith, Pen Groes Oped and The Lion. The only inn remaining is the Goose and Cuckoo, which is situated on the hillside high above the village and outside the estate boundary.
The Mari Lwyd was taken around the village between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night (December 25 to January 6) and the horse’s skull was covered with a white sheet and decorated with coloured ribbons. It was carried on a pole by a man who crouched beneath the sheet, and operated the jaw by means of two forked sticks or by pulling a cord. He would also prance about just like a horse and make appropriate noises.
The upturned bottoms of two broken black bottles were put into the horse’s eye sockets so that the raised side of each bottom protruded slightly through the opening. These were firmly secured and the surroundings of each eye made to look as natural as possible.
Two large multi-coloured rosettes were pinned to each side of the horse’s ears, and another placed in front of its forehead. Zig zag strips of coloured ribbon were tied over the face of the head to complete the decorations
The man leading the Mari on a long reined bridle, was known as the Ostler and would be accompanied by six or eight helpers, wielding musical instruments and wearing dirty ragged costumes. They also sometimes wore masks or blackened their faces.
The group walked from door to door around the village and as they approached each cottage, songs were sung in which the bearers try to gain access by performing a series of humorous verses known as pwnco. The people inside the house then respond with their own rhymes, in a fierce battle to outwit the creature and prevent her from entering the property.
The people inside would reply in verse, pretending to refuse entry. There followed a contest of impromptu verse between the two sides until the callers, who were always better prepared, were allowed entry into the house. Back and forth went the rhymes until one side claimed a victory. Usually, but not always, the Mari won and letting her into your house was considered good luck for the horse was thought to bestow good fortune on the inhabitants as it left.
Once inside the Mari chased the young women of the family, gambolling and cavorting, it would blow, sniff, bite and neigh in an effort to frighten them and when the horse-play was over, the revellers would be given food and drink.
The tour of the village ended at Llanover Court, the home of Lord and Lady Llanover. When their grand house was demolished in 1936, the Llanover Mari was unfortunately sold and the main reminder of this custom is the painting on the front of the Old Post Office..
This custom, a form of wassailing, is part of a pagan tradition and the first written record of it dates back to 1800, in a book by J. Evans, titled A Tour through part of North Wales. Although the book focused on North Wales, the chapter in which the Mari Lwyd is mentioned, deals with the customs and language of Wales in general terms and does not suggest that the tradition was performed in that part of Wales. It is best known for its practice in Glamorgan and Old Monmouthshire, particularly during the mid-nineteenth century. It is significant that a Mari Lwyd is on show every Christmas at St Fagans National Museum, Cardiff.
Its actual origin is not known but there is a story that the Mari Lwyd represents a pregnant horse turned out of the stable in Bethlehem to allow the Virgin Mary somewhere to give birth to Jesus. The horse had to roam the countryside looking for a sheltered place to give birth to her foal.
It may well have begun as a pre-Christian ceremony, which was later taken over by the Church and turned into a cult connected with the Virgin Mary. It is probable that after the Reformation, all references to the Virgin were excluded.
In recent times there has been a revival of interest in the tradition and in late January a Mari Lwyd ceremony takes place in Chepstow. In Abergavenny it will be celebrated at Hen Galen, (January 13th). Starting from the Chapel Café in Market street at 3.30 pm it will visit the Angel Hotel, the Kings Head, Hen and Chickens, the King’s Arms and the Grofield.
The custom of the Mari Lwyd was once widespread in Monmouthshire, but with the decline of the Welsh language in the county, the tradition began to die out. After 1880 it was becoming extinct in most parts of the county. A reason for its demise was the decrease in Welsh speaking, preventing households from replying to the Mari group, as the contest was almost always sang and performed in Welsh.
Yet, in the 1930s the custom was still surviving in Caerleon, where five local men kept it going. At most places they were made welcome, but on one occasion the Caerleon Mari was threatened by a bulldog which had been positioned by the gate deliberately, because the owners were unwilling to offer hospitality.
However, he was no match for the Mari and a ‘champ, champ, champ’ of the horse’s jaws made the aggressive dog flee in terror. But the Mari Lwyd had been insulted and the party never visited that house again.
It is very sad that so many great traditions of the past have disappeared and the majority of people now have never even heard of the Mari Lwyd.