One Christmas tradition that has always intrigued me is the Welsh wassailing folk custom centered around Mari Lwyd. This Welsh tradition is reportedly over 3,000 years old and is focused on Mari Lwyd ("gray mare" or "Blessed Mary" in other translations), a macabre figure of a skeletal horse head mounted on a stick, decorated with ribbons and jingling bells, and draped in a flowing white sheet (to hide the handler/puppeteer of Mari Lwyd). The eerie equine represents Death, and the only way to defeat the specter is to beat it in a battle of rhymes.
The Mari Llwyd at Llangynwyd in Glamorgan, led by Sianco'r Castell. The photograph was taken by Frederic Evans between 1904 and 1910 and published in E.C. Cawte's Ritual Animal Disguise: A Historical and Geographical Study of Animal Disguise in the British Isles
The Mari Lwyd is accompanied by groups of people going house to house, where the inhabitants are challenged to a rhyming battle. Traditionally, the Mari Lwyd and its group of people sing a traditional Welsh song, and the house owners respond in kind with songs, rhymes, insults, or riddles. This can go back and forth for a while, until the Mari Lwyd is let into the home for treats and drinks. It is like trick or treating for adults!
A postcard with a standard call and response in Welsh [image source]
As I mentioned above, the origin of Mari Lywd is said to date before Christianity and has it's roots in paganism. Though the beginnings of Mari Lwyd isn't really know, it has been a popular activity throughout Christmastime as well as New Years in Wales for a long time. In fact, the practice is alive and well today, and if you were to visit Wales this time of year you would certainly find Mari Lywd celebrations happening on the streets, especially at St. Fagan’s National History Museum every December and in the town of Chepstow in January.
Watch a vintage "pwnco" (aka the epic singing or rhyming battle) between a Mari Lwyd and homeowners below: