Out of the mist comes the jagged silhouette of the horse-skull, teeth perpetually bared, bone-clack of jaw, death-rattle of stiff-wooden tongue, draped in a spectral sheet, swaying to the doom-doom beat and the wassailers make their groggy way up the milk-bottle street. It is New Year’s Day in Glamorgan. In the villages and towns of the coal-black valleys the newly ancient custom of the Mari Lwyd is being enacted. It is led by the ostler by umbilical rein: accompanying him are outlandish characters, Christmas cast-offs, Father Christmas or one of his misbegottens, green men, white ladies, following the Y Fari Lwyd, the Grey Mare, or Grey Mary to some, as it dips and jinks to the threshold. A sharp rap-rapping at the door, a rude awakening. The cold slaps you like a hangover. Curtain-twitch curiousity. The gummy-eyed REM of the street’s dreaming, axe-picking at the coal-faces of their chthonic longings in bedroom blanketed snugness, is disturbed. Which reality is this? Which year? Old year or new? Get up! Grey Mary’s here! And she’s wanting to come in for tea and brith like Lady Muck! Grab a dressing gown. Gather your wits. Pull up your knickers. Speak the pwnco. Call-and-response. Banter for your life. Death must be invited in. Given food and drink. Cold meats and warm cider. And then you’re off the hook, possibly. The Reaper might pass your home by with his big black book, a bony digit scrolling down the lists of surnames. Death’s lotto. It could be you. The fatal thunderball. The terminal jackpot. When your numbers come up, the surprise will kill you. But the guizers stagger groggily onwards to the next house, their next victims. The wild has been let in with its muddy boots, its lack of manners. Lustful intrusions. Rubbing up the girls. A frisky mortis. Dancing our shadow, unbound by the corset of rules and codes which constrict and protect us the rest of the year. But for one day, reality bends, and the Grey Mary arrives like Rhiannon to rock our worlds on her cock-horse, jangling her hells bells. She carries us over the borders, between the worlds, between the years, and we must placate her to survive. And all before bloody breakfast.
This is the New Year custom of the Mari Lwyd which can still be spotted in South Wales, most authentically in Llangynwyd, near Maesteg, but also throughout the Llantrisant area. In Chepstow this custom has reached its apogee with a conscious ‘revival’, which has grown over the last decade from a small number of dedicated wassailers to hundreds of morris, public and this year 9 Mari Lwyds. The Chepstow Wassail takes place on the Saturday nearest to Old Twelfth Night (17th January), the traditional end of Yuletide (in the Julian calendar). The day begins with Morris dancing outside the Three Tuns, each side taking a turn. Then there is a procession, led by the Maris to the new orchard planted at the foot of the castle. There the usual wassail custom takes place: the singing of the Wassail song, the ‘toasting’ of the tree (with triangles of toast) and the scaring away of bad spirits with party poppers (as opposed to shotguns – a concession to health-and-safety). The gathered process three times around the apple trees, singing the wassail song. The Maris linger among the orchard – seeing several together is strange and eerie sight on a chilly winters day, but also wonderfully delightful and eccentric. Suddenly we’re not in Kansas anymore, or Glamorganshire for that matter. It is like being in an episode of Dr Who, one where the monsters get together to have a bit of a knees-up – Daleks and Cybermen getting tipsy at the works do. Children look up at the Maris in awe. Yet the horse-skulls are beautifully decorated with all kinds of foofaraw, outdoing each other in their folk-bling. They prance and preen like glamour queens – a queasy mix of the camp and gothic. This is the Folky Horror Show. The procession rambles back to the pub and everyone tries to squeeze into the Tuns for a singalong. For a while its sardines. Then a space clears and a black-faced pirate burst into chanty, and us land-lubbers chant along. There’s more morris – they breed ‘em round here: Border Morris that is, figures in black clacking sticks lustily, bellowing out like rutting stags. Later, the English make their way to the Gloucestershire side of the Wye to be given hospitality at a friendly natives place overlooking the river. More wassailing takes place, then a rocket is fired and the English contingent process to the bridge pulling a cart with an apple tree on it. On the bridge there is a ‘folk-off’ between the Welsh and the English. But instead of fisticuffs, there are handshakes, Happy New Years and dancing. St George and St David flags are exchanged. The Maris ‘rave’ on the bridge, engaging in a bit of horse-play, and the atmosphere is one of a very British Saturnalia. The English are welcomed in, and everyone makes their way to the museum for more wassailing. Later on there’s a ceilidh and drunken singing late into the evening. This is the folk tradition alive and well on the Borders – blood and cider flowing in its veins. Where else could such a custom take place? Except here at the fringes. There is nothing quite like the Chepstow Wassail.
Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 17 January 2016