If celebrating Christmas on the 6th of January felt strange, celebrating the New Year on January 16th, felt even stranger. But there are two worlds in Wales – remember the Harry Potter analogy – and while the rest of the world settled into a boring old mid-January malaise, Cymru Cymraeg celebrated another ancient tradition – Y Fari Lwyd (the Grey Mary).
If you Google “Y Fari Lwyd” Wikipedia will tell you that Y Fari Lwyd is a wassailing tradition similar to English folk customs involving hobby horses and other stock characters. This is a fairly anglo-centric explanation of the tradition. You could just as easily say:
English wassailing traditions involving hobby horses and other familiar characters are most likely derived from the South Wales folk custom known as Y Fari Lwyd, a Celtic ritual, possibly of Indo-European origin, which involves groups of men carrying a be-ribboned horse skull between private homes and public houses and singing impromptu verse in order to gain admission.
In fact, I just did. 🙂
Y Fari Lywd is primarily a South Wales folk custom – traditionally celebrated between Christmas and New Year. But in recent years, it has been taken up in other parts of Wales and, like Plygain, is celebrated according to the Julian calendar. Which is how I ended celebrating New Year, in mid-Wales, last Saturday evening.
Here’s how the night panned out for me:
- I boarded a mini-bus in Machynlleth
- Travelled to the Brigands Inn, picking up others en-route
- At the Brigands Inn, Y Fari Lwyd and other characters – including an Ostler, a sergeant, a merriman, and Pwnsch a Siwan (Punch and Judy) stood outside.
- Others gathered inside
- Y Fari parti sang a tune asking for admission
“Wel dyma ni’n dwad (Well here we come)
Gy-feillion di-niwad (Innocent friends)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad i ganu (To ask leave to sing)”
(an example of a typical opening song)
- The people inside made witty excuses in verse for why admittance was not possible
- Y Fari parti responded
- And on it went – until they ran out of ripostes and personal insults
- At which point Y Fari parti was admitted
- Food and drink were served
- People danced and sang
- Then we got back on the mini bus
- And travelled to the next location – The Buckleys Arms
- Where it started over again
- (yes, it’s a pub crawl with poetry and singing)
At the end of the evening, a huge party gathered in the back bar of the Llew Goch (Red Lion). People turned up with instruments, song books were handed out (for people like me) and we sang – defiant folk songs, patriotic anthems, and heartbreaking laments.
- All in Welsh
- Because language is the heart of this culture
- Along with music
- And it is beautiful
PS. The evening was organised by Arfon Hughes of Dinas Mawddwy. He composed many of the Mari parti’s verses, along with Huw Jones and children from the local area. Mair Tomos Ifans and Gwawr Davalan composed the verses sung from inside the tafarns. Neither parti had seen each other’s compositions beforehand, the challenge being to choose the appropriate verses and respond on the spur of the moment. Spur of the moment! Are you picking up a theme? Word play and impromptu eloquence are an important part of being Welsh.