Custom contrived: Chepstow Wassail and Mari Llwyd

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Each January the boarder town of Chepstow becomes home to a fascinating mix of Welsh and English customs – The Chepstow Wassail. A colourful picandmix custom.

On arrival it is very evident this has become a rallying place for all people who wish to celebrate the winter and as such Morris teams from a wide area attend. The town is awash with blacks, purples and the sounds of bells, cries and clashing of sticks.

Strictly speaking the custom is divided into two – the wassail an English luck giving custom previously described here and the Mari Lwyd – a Welsh house visiting good luck custom which has not been fully covered yet in this blog.

When I arrived there a large group had assembled around a rather raggedy looking tree below the grounds of the castle. Here some Border Morris were half way through an apple wassail, pouring ale over the roots whilst the congregation assembled singing a wassailing song, toast attached to trees and ribbons swaying.  Everyone despite the cold was enjoying themselves smiling and enjoying the special bond the custom had established.

A few metres away were some dancers and weaving in an out of the crowd were Kentish Hooden Oss making the children laugh and look bemused in equal measure. They were a fair way from home again indicating the countrywide popularity of the custom.

No room at the inn or stable!

However in the pub nearby was a Mari Lwyd, one of a number in the town, which was about to go through the Pwnco, a rhyme/song full of riddles – a sort of old Welsh rap battle! The landlord was preventing the Mari Lwyd and his team from entering. From a casual observer one might agree for outside clad in a white sheet was a scene from perhaps from a horror film – a bleach white horses skull. The Mari Lwyd is a curious custom and one we will only briefly discuss here.

“The discussion was From inside the house

What, ho! Morganwg’s happy land
Is full of corn and barley
What, ho! is your request – demand?
Answer! We grant short parley

From the Mari Lwyd party outside

Honest men are we, who sue

Favours many, money due
To the Mari Llwyd from you!

From inside the house to end the contest

Come in, come in, and sit at ease

Ye merry sons of Cymru
Here’s sweet metheglin, here’s cream cheese
With milk, cream cakes and flummery!”

The Mari Lwyd is a strange mixture of macabre and marvellous. Its empty eye sockets filled with sparkling green glowing glass eyes, upon its head a crown of flowers with ribbons attached which flew in the cold winds. Its head shrouded to make it look even more mysterious – and hide the pole. Its jaw open and closing like a clapperboard.

Once inside it joined a whole throng of Mari Lwyds snapping and leaning over into people’s lunches and attempting to drink their lemonades! Those who expected them were very amused but there one or two who found it all a bit too weird.

Border Morris on the border

As darkness fell the main proceedings begun. At first the Mari Lwyds went to the bridge for the famed “Meeting Of English and Welsh at the border  Here a large crowd had assembled at the ‘border’ some carrying England flags on the English side and the others Welsh flags. The official start begun when a large rocket was sent into the air to tell the Mari Lwyd that the English wassailers had finished and that they were about to reach the bridge’s middle. With them the group carried lanterns, played music and carried a large apple cart carrying the symbol of their wassailing – a decorated apple tree. As a horn sounds, the sign of the English approach a which both them move slowly to the centre shouting and cheering carrying their flags. Warlike in a way if it wasn’t so surreally apparelled. Despite their menacing approach as soon as the middle is meet celebrations break out, hand shaking, flag exchanging and singing. Wassail to everyone and happy new year. If only every border was like. The Welsh invite the English over to join them in Chepstow. After then the Mari Lwyd descended upon the Chepstow Museum. Here the crowd once again got into good spirited boisterousness, name calling and ilk. Here the Pwnco continued until the Lord and Lady of the ceremony appeared at the museum door and offered a wassail cup full of mulled cider.

A meeting of skulls

Organised as event to revive local music dance and folk customs locally by the The Widders Welsh Border Morris and Tim Ryan of the Severn Princess ferry restoration since 2005 and has grown from strength to strength. As mentioned teams come from far afield across Wales and into the midlands and beyond. In 2019 there were 30 Mari Lwyds although this included some out of area versions such as Kimberley’s Owd Oss! For a custom once in decline it is clearly more and more popular. Indeed popularity has been an issue and in 2020 the custom went for a rest and a re-think due to its massive success. An article in a local newspaper stated that:

“It has grown so much in popularity since it began 15 years ago, to the extent that organisers have pulled the plug while they ponder how best to reorganise it. Mick Lewis, a member of the organising committee, said he is proud that they have built such a popular event, and confirmed the festival will return in 2021 after a period of “soul-searching”.”

One of the organisers stating:

“Fifteen years ago we started with just one Mari Lwyd, and now we get over 30 turn up, along with hundreds of people,”

Such can happen to customs, that their popularity outweighs their origin provision and thought. Bloggers like myself must be very aware of the impact our reviews can have. So I should state that the Chepstow Wassail is a great custom perhaps to reduce numbers not one to go to every year and spectate.

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