Drinking, fun and debauchery are fixtures of New Year celebrations. They have been a feature of welcoming the new year in Gwent for hundreds, if not thousands of years, as Martin Wade discovers.

CARRYING a horse's skull around might seem a strange way to greet the New Year, but a revived South Wales tradition, popular in Gwent does just that.

The Mari Lwyd is a celebration centred round a horse’s skull carried on a stick and decorated with rosettes and coloured ribbons. Meaning 'grey mare' in Welsh, it sees a party of revellers going from door to door singing ribald songs.

Their verses would then be met by mocking responses from the resident. This contest was called 'pwnco' (possibly derived from the Welsh 'pwnc' or 'subject') and must have been like a medieval version of duelling rappers.

After the pwnco the party would be invited into the house for a drink before moving on to the next.

A description from 'The Gentleman's Magazine' in 1842 tells vividly of the tradition: “There is a custom in the neighbourhood of Monmouth of carrying round from house to house the Merry Lewid. This is a representation, generally very well executed, of the head and neck of a white horse.

“The neck has some black stripes on it, so as to bear some resemblance to a zebra, and from it hangs a sheet, beneath which is a man carrying the Merry Lewid elevated on pole. The pole, swayed backwards and forwards, gives the movements of a prancing and rearing horse.

The writer remembers the eerie effect of the horse form: “In the doorway, with the outline well defined in the strong moon-light, stood erect a great white horse, furiously tossing his head about.”

That it survives at all is something of a miracle. The rise of non-conformism in Wales saw such ‘pagan’ festivals viewed very dimly.

The Mari Lwyd was seen by some as an orgy of drunken bad behaviour and a Blaenau Gwent Baptist minister did his best to put a stop to it. In his book called ‘The Religion of the Dark Ages’ the Rev William Roberts described in detail the Mari Lwyd so that people could recognise it and avoid it. He said: “We must try and get the young people of our time to interest themselves more in intellectual and substantial things such as reading and composing poetry, essays, singing etc.”

Mick Widder is one who is happy that the Rev Roberts failed. He is one of the organisers of the 'Wassail Mari'. Known as the 'Oldest new tradition in Wales' it is a combination of Welsh Mari Lwyd and the English ‘Wassail’ New Year traditions and is based in Chepstow.

'Because we're a border town we wanted to bring both traditions together.' The event sees revellers from the English and Welsh sides meet on the town's iron bridge to exchange flags. It is, Mick says, a peculiarly moving scene: “You've got these two crowds of people walking towards eachother in the dark."

Some are waving flags and some have a horse's skull. "The hairs stand up on your neck he says. "It looks like they are marching to war and then peace breaks out" adding: "The two sides meet in the middle and the Welsh invite the English over for a party."

The hybrid celebration started ten years ago and Mick says it has grown hugely since then. "We've had people from Cornwall and Nottinghamshire taking part; interestingly many of them have similar traditions horse traditions at New Year to the Mari Lwyd."

“The event is all about community” says Mick. “We started it to get people away from their TVs and their computer games and to get out and do stuff” he adds, “and so many have done that.”

One tradition which was common in Monmouthshire is that of the Calennig apple. Although calennig is a Welsh word meaning ‘New Year celebration/gift’, its routes could lie further afield.

The Calennig was well-known in Caerleon where children would decorate apples and then take them from door-to-door and recite a rhyme on New Year's Day to be given sweets or cakes.

Monmouthshire writer Arthur Machen recalls the curious custom: "When I was a boy in Caerleon-on-Usk, the town children got the biggest and bravest and gayest apple they could find in the loft, deep in the dry bracken. They put bits of gold leaf upon it. They stuck raisins into it. They inserted into the apple little sprigs of box [hedge], and then they delicately slit the ends of hazel nuts, and so worked that the nuts appeared to grow from the ends of the box-leaves, to be the disproportionate fruit of these small trees.

"At last, three bits of stick were fixed into the base of the apple, tripod-wise; and so it was borne round from house to house; and the children got cakes and sweets, and —those were wild days, remember—small cups of ale. And nobody knew what it was all about."

Machen was sure the tradition descended from the town's Roman origins: “Caerleon means the fort of the legions, and for about three hundred years the Second Augustan Legion was quartered there, and made a tiny Rome of the place, with amphitheatre, baths, temples, and everything necessary for the comfort of a Roman-Briton.

"And the Legion brought over the custom of New Year's gift of good omen. The apple, with its gold leaf, raisins and nuts, meant: 'good crops and wealth in the New Year.' "

This echoes the wider Roman midwinter festival of Saturnalia. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture and in the mid-winter the festival was given in his honour in the hope he would bring good harvests in the new year.

Another place where traditional new year celebrations are held is the Star Inn at Llansoy.

There they will gather for a Mari Lwyd on 6 January to welcome the new year, horse skull and all.

David Howell is a lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Gloucestershire and lives nearby.

Although he'll be there to take part in the celebrations, he sounds a note of caution when describing events like the Calennig apple and Mari Lwyd as 'ancient traditions'. "There are no records earlier than the 18th century describing them.” But he echoes Mick Widder when describing how vital they are. “When you strip away the horse heads and the apples from these events, what is important about them is community."

He says the Mari Lwyd at Llansoy highlights another element of these celebrations. "It started only in 1998 and though there is no historical narrative linking it to this area, it has become historic.”

So you too can help build these old, new traditions of new year in Gwent and be part of a growing community who welcome the new year in a more traditional way.

If you would like more information on the Wassail-Mari at Chepstow, call Mick Widders on 07870 611978 or go to chepstowwassailmari.co.uk