The Bones of Winter: Solstice And The Mari Lwyd.



The old moon and the hazel.


It’s a dark and blustery morning a day before the winter solstice and I’ve woken ridiculously early to the sound of tapping against my window. Whenever the wind blows from the north east the old wisteria that covers the front of the house reaches out her bare knuckled, bony fingers and tap,tap,taps. She’s keen for me not to forget the long nights, the slowing pulse, the sleeping creatures: the shutting down of life in the dreaming dark. Tap, tap, tap. I am warm and in bed, light is there  one switch away and my blood runs just as hot at it did under an August sun, but I can feel the winter sat outside, hunched in my garden, stripped to the bone. I can feel the going away, the lack, the dying sun and the bare bones of the land pushing up and up. She is an old lady now, thin skinned and wet through, and in my head I see a horse’s skull…

Photo: Museum of Wales.
Photo: Museum of Wales.

When I was a little girl, and Christmas was about stuffing my face, ripping open presents and avoiding my turn at feeding the animals or bringing in wood, I couldn’t understand the darker customs surrounding this radiant time of year, especially the welsh custom of the Mari Lywd: the original Night-mare. As a 10 yr old I read Susan Cooper’s ‘Silver on the Tree’ and was utterly petrified at her description of this Solstice creature of welsh myth:IMG_1512

But at some point on the path from girl to woman the bones of winter began to make sense, along with its skeletal horse. I’ve ridden horses all my life but they are still almost mythological to me; their strength restrained and their wild nature held by the balance of my body, the squeeze of my fingers on the reins. And as I reach my hand out of the window into the still-black morning the wind is a horse, flat out across the fields, ready for me to catch hold of her mane and let the old mare of winter gallop me out of the longest night, out of the cold and into a new year.

Artist: Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Artist: Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

The bones of the Mari Lwyd are the same colour as the sliver of old moon that sits in my window, both white sheeted, clacking jawed and ancient, and I might have my reading light and my layers of manufactured warmth but the mare mother of winter still gallops through these shortening days. She still draws our eye to the circling year, the life and death of it all as her speed and skin and muscle is reduced to bones; not destroyed but transformed by the slow transit of the dying sun. So let her in, sing her a song, write her a poem, put your fingers out into a freezing, unlit morning and grasp her mane: acknowledge the cold and the dying year, and let her carry you sure-footed, as she has for two millenia, into a new, and better, year.

Artist: Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Artist: Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

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


Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.

A knock of the sands on the glass of the grave,
A knock on the sands of the shore,
A knock of the horse’s head of the wave,
A beggar’s knock on the door.
A knock of a moth and the pane of light,
In the beat of the blood a knock.
Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.

The sands in the glass, the shrinking sands,
And the picklock, picklock, picklock, hands.

Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.

An  extract from Vernon Watkin’s poem The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd first published in 1941.



– Please check out Clive Hicks-Jenkins incredible Mari Lwyd art, and the exhibition inspired by the book ‘The Mare’s Tale’ by Catriona Urqhart.

Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence, which incorporates ‘Silver on the Tree’ is a classic, and fantastic, YA series, full of folklore and british mythology. It definitely bears re-reading.


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