Each Christmas, the Mari Llwyd tradition is observed in south-east Wales. It is based on a legend that a mare about to foal was pulled from her stable on a cold, dark night in a little Middle Eastern town to make way for a heavily pregnant young woman and her husband, Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.
Since that time the Mari Llwyd, the Grey Mary, has wandered for two thousand years in search of a place to give birth to her foal. The Mari Llwyd tradition continues as groups of men go from place to place seeking a welcome and hospitality, a horse’s skull and a costume worn by the person playing the Grey Mare.
The tradition has pre-Christian pagan roots; the association with the Holy Family giving a dubious Christian tinge to a midwinter carolling and drinking custom. It does, though, raise questions about the less fortunate in the Christian story, not grey mares, but those for whom the birth of Jesus brought danger and death.
The shepherds live a self-contained life. They receive their angelic revelation, encounter the Christ child, and return to their rustic existence. The visit of the Magi brings with it much less pleasant consequences.
Herod’s meeting with the visitors is followed by the slaughter of young boys in the region of Bethlehem. It would have been in keeping with what we know of Herod, who was a known thug and bullyboy; it would have been consistent with his behaviour to have ordered killings and having done so he would have hardly have been likely to have publicised the fact.
Seeing the story through Western eyes, we might be troubled at there being no documentary evidence of such killings. But we are used to the rule of law, to a free press, to the careful recording of public events. These standards don’t even apply throughout our world today – how many slaughters have taken place in Africa in the last twenty years without anyone from the outside world knowing?
I met a Filipino community leader whose people were granted land by the government as part of the land reform programme. They built bamboo houses and started growing crops and raising livestock. The local landlord did not like this, he employed armed men who drove cattle across the crops, destroyed the houses and fences, and drove out the villagers. How do I know this happened? Because someone happened to take a video recording of it taking place. Otherwise who would have believed that an upright, respectable well-known landowner would have done such a thing? Because something is not recorded, it doesn’t mean it didn’t take place.
In the midst of the joy of the Christmas story, there is the sorrow and tragedy that are part of the human condition.
The Grey Mare is a reminder that actions have consequences; that nothing happens in isolation; that bright light casts dark shadows.