The Mari Lwyd (“mah-ree loo-eed“) is a Christmas tradition from Wales similar to caroling, however, the ones calling consist of the Mari and her friends who are interested in getting inside the house. After the visitors exchange sung rhymes back and forth with those indoors, everyone is let in to have some treats, and the Grey Mare brings good luck for the new year.
In 2021 we first learned about the Mari Lwyd tradition right after the Christmas season was wrapping up, and decided that next year we would make our own. We used cardboard, paper, masking tape and packing tape, glue, and paint. The fabric is just a cotton gauze scarf I like to wear in the summer, and I just draped it over the skull and placed a paper wreath on top.
Thanks to the existence of step-by-step images depicting how others have crafted a Mari (THANK YOU), I was able to see the general shape of the pieces needed to be cut from cardboard. These “tutorials” I used are in the bibliography below in case anyone else would like to make their own. Because I didn’t want a full-sized horse skull, I decided that a 10″ jaw bone would probably be a good place to start, and then see how things unfolded from there. This jaw bone piece is the shape traced on the cardboard, while the white paper is the pattern I created for the top of the skull. I just traced it by eye and hoped it would be okay, but I made sure to cut a bit extra (for all pieces) just in case I had to shave off a bit for some reason. The eye hole is the C cutout at the bottom, and when I traced the pattern to the cardboard, I extended those strips several inches so I had lots of material to work with.
I taped a strip of cardboard to the jawbone (on top, upside-down) so that the skull-top has something to sit on. The next picture is more clear.
The one piece I failed to show here is the surface of the nose bone, and it is used to create the width of the skull on top. The piece I traced turned out looking kind of like a blade of a sword, where the tip/narrow part lines up with the points from the little dagger section of the skull-top piece, where the bridge of the horse’s nose would be.
For the back of the skull-top, you can see the eye hole created from bending the cardboard strip (from that C cutout) so it can be attached at ~90° to the other strip below. I connected these lower strips in the back by overlapping the cardboard and securing it with tape, cutting off excess length. Then the sword-shaped piece was folded back to meet the lower strips and secured. I thought about filling in those gaps behind the eye hole with paper or cardboard, but I thought it kind of looked cool so left it as is.
I glued some paper over the cardboard just to reduce how much paint would be used covering the brown colour. The red ribbon you see below will be used for the wreath, but it came on a cardboard spool that was the perfect size to add to the jawbone to keep it from collapsing in on itself.
The teeth were super tedious, ngl. I cut small strips of cardboard and rolled them up, cutting a small notch parallel to the short side maybe 5mm from the end, so that the section created could slide between the layers of the corrugated cardboard. I taped and glued them down, a very messy and frustrating task, and painted them when dry.
But they turned out so well! It was worth the effort. I did a layer of paper maché (not shown in photos) in an attempt to smooth out the edges, but it made the flat surfaces of the bone wrinkled, so not sure if I’d recommend doing that. Finally, she got 3-4 coats of white acrylic.
Then came time to stylize Mari, and because I just wanted to use stuff I had on hand (and didn’t feel like foraging), I made her wreath crown out of paper. I used thicker paper from a large grocery bag and cut three strips to braid into a ring (~5″ diameter) to act as the base, but I made sure to crumple the paper so it was more like a cord. The braid was great because you can just stick in stuff like leaves between the strands and it will hold while the glue dries. Also, attaching the ends of the braid together really benefits from packing tape, because it’s stickier and stronger.
I slapped some green paint on what was left of the paper and free-hand cut it into leaf-like shapes. I was very lazy here. You can see I didn’t even paint the back side, because I think I will slowly replace these fake leaves with real leaves as time goes on. Mari is supposed to wear holly and ivy, and I’m not exactly sure what I will do for that. I had some red craft gems that I used to cover the edges of the ribbons that were glued to the braid.
When I fit the skull-top on top of the jawbone, there was about an inch of clearance at the very back, so I rolled up a square of cardboard to make a tube to hold the stick. I collect driftwood for wall-hangings and weaving so I happened to have this piece which turned out to be perfect because of where the branches used to be. There is about 4″ or so stuck inside the skull and I did not glue it for easy removal and storage. The tube inside is tight enough to keep the head from falling off or poking through the top, despite the fact that the jaw rests on that branch nub.
The lower part sticking up is handy for draping the back of the shawl, it kind of looks like a ghostly body when you hold it in your hand.
Without her crown she looks spooky.
Also, I added jungle bells at the bottom of the silver ribbons for extra Christmas spirit.
By chance, we finished putting her together on New Years Day, and thus, Mari was born into death on the first day of 2022. Hopefully the Grey Mare brings this Grey House some good luck.
More information on Mari:
Again, a big thank you to jet3270 and Laura for showing us the steps they took:
Laura Tempest Zakroff: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/tempest/2019/12/making-the-mari-lwyd.html