Yule animals

Going from house to house singing Christmas carols is a long-held tradition. But what if the wassailers turn up with a goat or a horse’s head? And what if they take you with them?

Mari Lwyd
R. fiend, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Aside from occasional drive-by visits from Salvation Army brass bands, we don’t get a lot of carollers down in New Zealand. In other countries, however, wassailing is a Christmastime tradition. Going door to door, visiting neighbours and singing carols, bringing good cheer and warming a cold winter… it sounds lovely. In a few places in Europe, wassailing comes with some extra traditions – some quaint, some vaguely menacing, and some just plain raucous fun.

Take the Julbocken, the Yule goat. This effigy of a goat, often made out of straw, had its origins in pagan traditions (like the Christmas tree, the Yule log, and, well, Christmas itself). In Scandinavia, carollers might dress up as a goat and go door-to-door, “julebukking.” My favourite part of this tradition is that the julebukkers might take someone from each house with them, gradually growing the party as they go from one house to the next. It’s sort of the reverse of the children’s game Sardines, only with more alcohol involved.

Then there’s the Mari Lwyd. This terrifying figure sometimes shows up in South Wales. It’s a horse’s skull mounted on a tall pole, held by someone swathed in white cloth. A squad of men would carry the Mari Lwyd through the night, knocking on doors and demanding entry. This part is fun as well: the visitors sing a song, the occupants sing a counter-song, and the two sides battle back and forth until the visitors prevail and enter the house for food, drinks, and general merriment.

[Thanks to Gareth E.]

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