Mari Lwyd - The Zombie Christmas Horse

Mari Lwyd, Horse of Frost, Star-horse, and White Horse of the Sea, is carried to us.

The Dead return.

They strain against the door.
They strain towards the fire which fosters and warms the Living.

The Living, who have cast them out, from their own fear, from their own fear of themselves, into the outer loneliness of death, rejected them, and cast them out for ever:
The Living cringe and warm themselves at the fire, shrinking from that loneliness, that singleness of heart.

The Living are defended by the rich warmth of the flames which keeps that loneliness out.
Terrified, they hear the Dead tapping at the panes; then they rise up, armed with the warmth of firelight, and the condition of scorn.

Midnight is burning like a taper. In an hour, in less than an hour, it will be blown out.

It is the moment of conscience.

The living moment.

The dead moment.


~ Vernon Watkins

No Christmas tradition bears more resemblance to Halloween than that of the Welsh celebration of Mari Lwyd. There are costumes, trick or treating and a macabre skeleton mare that has risen from the dead and wanders the streets with her attendants with one goal in mind - to get into your house. To keep them out, you must engage in a battle of rhyme no less.

An ancient practice, Mari Lwyd or Grey Mare/Holy Mary is typically celebrated on New Year's Eve. Since these ancient times, people have celebrated festivals of light - signifying rebirth and hope in times of darkness. In the festival of Mari Lwyd, we have the rebirth of a dead horse. A horse skull is affixed to a pole with a white cloth to hide the puppeteer. Mari Lwyd is sometimes decorated with festive ribbons and bells or winter greens and accompanied by costumed, wassailing revelers, who are representative of the dead who have risen to remind the living of their existence.

Mari Lwyd and her group, knock on doors asking, in song, to be let in. The song is sung in Welsh and is pretty much the same with a few variations. You can listen to it here:

Once the traditional opening verses are sung, Mari Lwyd and company are answered by those inside with challenges and insults. A battle of wits known as a pwnco ensues, where riddles, challenges and insults must be exchanged in rhyme. If Mari's party wins the pwnco, which can be as long as the creativity of the two parties endures, the Mari party enters with another song and is given drinks and treats.

* Mari Lwyd piece by Laurence G. Tilley

* Mari Lwyd artwork by Paul Woodford


  1. Wow, the line between Halloween and Christmas is really blurred with this strange tradition. I'm impressed with the participant's need to exercise so much verbal creativity just to survive the festivities. Would love to hear one of these parties in full swing!

  2. I may as well have a keg by the door since I don't think I could rhyme enough to keep the Mari out! What a neat tradition!

  3. oh I love to learn about other traditions!!
    thank you:)

  4. I LOVE this tradition! There are so many awesome things about it and yes, one of them is the battle of wits that is required. I've done more medieval mystery plays than I can remember and in those ALL the dialogue is in rhyme - I feel I'm ready to thrown down with Mari! long as I don't have to do so in Welsh...

  5. This is seriously new to me. How fascinating! It's making me think of 'The Lady on the Grey' representation of death, as a lady on a grey/white horse, in Neil Gaiman's 'The Graveyard Book'.