12th Night Revels
The 12th Day of Christmas is nigh upon us and so we anticipate the revelries of 12th Night! I often think that in accepting the norms of modern society, we’ve cheated ourselves out of proper celebrations. We moan about seeing the talismans of Yule appear in stores before All Hallow’s Eve (October 31), yet we want to constrain the celebration itself to December 24 and 25; extending it the full week to New Year Day if we feel really decadent. Bah!
Look back no further than those Elizabethans of Great Britain. Now they knew how to party at Christmastide – 12 full days of feasting and merriment! December 25 was only the beginning with the 12th Day falling on January 6, also known as Epiphany, Three Kings Day, Little Christmas or Women’s Christmas. And the biggest blowout of all was on 12th Night, the evening of January 5.
During the 12 Days, mischief and mayhem reigned; the world was topsy turvy. Masters acted as servants and servants as lords; men dressed as women and women as men. Essentially, you could reinvent yourself during this time; try on a different persona, let it all hang out. So long as everyone played along and returned to their “rightful roles” when the 12 Days were over, it served as a pressure relief valve for the whole community.
And if you happened to be in Wales, to all this chaos add the Mari Lwyd (MAH-ree Loyd) – a spectral figure fashioned from the skull of a horse atop a pole with beer bottle glass eyes, bedecked with colorful ribbons and bells with an articulated jaw that snapped and clacked as she came. Our Mari Lwyd is no doubt but a shadow of some pre-historic horse ritual as the Celts have a deeply held relationship with the equine species. Her name has several interpretations. One is “Grey Mare,” and one can certainly say that this old grey mare, she ain’t what she used to be. One might well wonder if she has something to do with the origin of “night mares.” Another is “Holy Mary,” making the connection with the virgin of the Christmas story. One tale posits that Mari represents a pregnant mare who was displaced from her stall that night in Bethlehem by the pregnant Mary and that is why she wonders from house to house at this season of the year, ever seeking shelter and comfort. One thing is sure, she provides a way for the community to face their own fears, their own mortality, in these dark days of midwinter and to enact again the triumph of life over death. Not to mention, having a bit of fun along the way…
The Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd typically takes place on 12th Night and looks a lot like a combination of Trick or Treating and Christmas Caroling. The Mari party consisting of gents includes the leader who guides the Mari, someone to animate the Mari while concealed by a white sheet, and an indeterminate number of chaps along for the singing and the reveling. When this jolly gang presents itself on your stoop, a contest ensues. It’s a battle of extemporaneous song utilizing a familiar tune, but each side having to ad lib the lyrics. The Mari party sings, then those in the house make reply. The last group with a verse wins. (Take note – its bad luck for you if the Mari party doesn’t win.) So after this throw-down, the Mari and her handlers are invited into the house for food, drink, money, etc. The carolers were often “well oiled” before they arrived at the first house, so after a few stops, they could make rather rowdy house guests. There are stories of young ladies being chased about by a furiously snapping Mari, furniture tumbling and crockery smashing. In one case, an innocent old woman was sitting in her rocker when a Mari was thrust through the window of her home and she died of fright. It was this type of behavior that caused the Mari to fall from favor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Reverend William Roberts wrote of the Mari in The Religion of the Dark Ages (1852) – “I wish of this folly, and of all similar follies, that they find no place anywhere apart from the museum of the historian and the antiquary.” Well, at least he let us keep her somewhere…
You can meet the Mari Lwyd Lawen (Merry Mari Lwyd) in person if you visit The Celtic Ranch today! She is grinning in the front window along with a calennig, a Welsh New Year Gift, a Highland Cow skull lantern and a little winter wren, the King of All Birds. And while you’re here, you can stock up on plenty of authentic sweet treats, biscuits, crisps and drinks worthy of a visit from the stalwart Mari Lwyd revelers. Or surprise a friend with a thoughtful gift to represent your good wishes for luck, health and prosperity for the new year.