13 January 2020 – Hen Galan

What would you say if a horse’s skull dressed in ribbons and bells, and wearing a long white sheet knocked on your door singing to be let in? I have been thinking a lot about this recently because today is Hen Galan, the old Welsh New Year, and tonight is the night when traditionally the Mari Lwyd (the Grey Mare or Mary Death or Blessed Mary) comes knocking, with an eye to blagging some food and cavorting around your house. 

At least I think it’s Hen Galan today. In Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem, Cooper and Sullivan say it was yesterday, and Google says it’s tomorrow to tie in with the Orthodox New Year. But in the Gwaun Valley in Pembrokeshire, it’s today. So I’m going with today. 

The Mari Lwyd is part of the wassailing tradition and comes a-calling throughout Christmas and New Year. And should the Mari Lwyd call upon you, you’ll need all your pithy comebacks ready, as it will challenge you in song. Think Pitch Perfect riff off, but with skulls. Ultimately though, after a bit of a to and fro, it’s in your best interest to let the Mari Lwyd in, as it’s said to bring good luck. 

And so ever the stage manager, I wanted to be prepared (even though the chances of the Mari Lwyd finding me in Sussex are slim). I needed to learn me some Welsh. Enter my two Welsh friends, Geraint and Sara Louise. Geraint very happily supplied me with cer i grafu (ker-ee-gravi) which means, go scratch, or go away. And Sara Louise deployed Welsh Twitter:

Which found Lowri Williams, who two nights ago had been out in the pouring rain with the Mari Lwyd and had filmed the call and answer! You don’t need to understand Welsh to get the gist of what’s going on (especially as with many wassailing and mumming traditions, there’s a bit of current political ribbing involved, which you may just recognise…).

And other leads, one of which led to this Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales page where you’ll find an English translation of a variation of the song, a recording in Welsh, and the sheet music (I thought I’d spare you my piano playing this time). 

Plus this website with some useful rebuttals.

So while my pronunciation is as ropey as a sailboat’s rigging, I now feel confident that I don’t have to resort to inappropriate finger gestures if approached. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Blwyddyn newydd dda! A pob lwc!

Many thanks again to Dr Sara Louise Wheeler, Lowri Williams, Geraint Williams and to everyone who replied to Sara Louise.

And finally, another bit of weatherlore – 13 January is said to be the coldest day of the year. While a bit shivery, I’m thinking there’s worse to come…

UPDATE: Despite my friends and I singing 80s classics for a lot of the night, nothing knocked, only the wind (told you, sunshine on the 12th...)


Resources

Header image: Wikimedia Commons

Chainey, D. (2018) A Treasury of British Folklore: Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe, London, National Trust Books

Cooper, Q. and Sullivan, P. (1994) Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem: 366 Days of British Myths, Customs & Eccentricities, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

https://www.westerntelegraph.co.uk/news/14201071.gwaun-valley-cwm-gwaun-celebrates-hen-galan-the-old-new-year-today/

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-46831954

https://www.felinfach.com/blogs/blog/new-years-day-13th-january

https://www.visitpembrokeshire.com/articles/hen-galan-a-true-welsh-celebration

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