Updated: May 21
Halloween is often seen as a North American holiday or celebration, synonymous with pumpkins, sweets and costumes. In Wales, those aspects can apply too, but the country does have a longer history of rituals and ceremonies that take place across the early days of winter.
Nos Galan Gaeaf is the Welsh language term for Halloween, referring to the night before the first day of winter, an equivalent of All Hallow's Eve let's say. In pre-Christian times, it was a pagan holiday dating back to the Iron Age Celts, when festivals celebrating the end of harvest and start of winter took place in Wales annually, and was also considered to be the Celtic New Year. It was eventually adopted by the Romans as their own festival when they invaded Britain.
In the year 609, All Saints Day was officially designated a Church feast, which was celebrated in May and was later moved to November by Pope Gregory in 835. The Christian Church may have intended that people would spend their time praying for the souls of the dead. However, the fact that this was a day off from work gave many people even more of an excuse to celebrate Halloween with more excitement and excess than before.
From this point we begin to see similarities with what with think of today as modern Halloween. It would be a time to pay-off the seasonal workers on the farms, and bid farewell to the departed, both living and dead. The night would be celebrated with a feast of stwmp naw rhyw, a mash of nine different root vegetables with milk, butter, salt and pepper.
It was also time for deciding which animals were fit enough to make it through the winter, and which were to be slaughtered or sent to market ahead of the colder months.
This then gave rise to Hwch Ddu, or Black Sow, one of Calan Gaeaf's darker rituals. One of the slaughtered pigs from the festival would rise up, supposedly out of the flames of the fire, and chase away the children (albeit usually a man covered in a cloth or animal skin.) The pig would then catch the last child to reach their home. The ritual represents the release of the souls of humans and animals, and a chance for those who had died to return to visit their homes, but on a practical level it was probably just a fun and effective way of getting children to bed.
People also set bonfires on hilltops for relighting their hearth fires for the winter and to frighten away evil spirits, and they sometimes wore masks and other disguises to avoid being recognised by the ghosts thought to be present. It was in these ways that beings such as witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and demons came to be associated with the day. The period was also thought to be favourable for divination on matters such as marriage, health, and death.
Other traditions particular to Calan Gaeaf, or Halloween, in Wales include :
1. Coelcerth: Each person at the festival would scratch their name onto a stone and cast it into a fire. If any stone was missing when the fire went out, folklore deemed that person would die within the next year.
2. Single women would walk around the bounds of a church, chanting "here is the sheath where is the knife", to which they were said to hear the name of the person they were to marry.
3. The apparition of a white lady, "Y Ladi Wen", who could be found at crossroads and graveyards, guarding against other, darker, spirits, was also believed to be common.
4. The Harvest Mare - Cornstalks were fashioned into the shape of a horse and hung above the hearth. However, women would try and prevent this happening, by soaking it with water and it was the men's job to try and get it inside, still dry.
5. Touching ground ivy was thought to make you have nightmares about hags and witches.
6. In order to see into the future, boys would place leaves of ivy under their pillows and girls would grow a rose around a large hoop, which they would jump through three times before cutting the rose and placing it under their pillow.
7. In Pembrokeshire, if people looked into a mirror on Halloween, they would see witches and demons in their sleep.
Some of these ideas, stories and traditions are just myths and legends today but the nation of Wales has a long tradition of celebrations considered to be a forerunner to modern Halloween. Respecting, celebrating and fearing the dead, the summer, the winter, the future and animals were all part of different rituals associated with Calan Gaeaf and in many ways the turning of time from October to November today maintains those same feelings.
Today, Halloween is growing rapidly ever year. There is an underground Cinema in Cardiff Castle annually, showing The Nightmare before Christmas, Hocus Pocus and other classics of the season. Children have Halloween parties in school and dress up regularly. More houses are being decorated than ever before, as well as the bars and clubs of Cardiff, Swansea and beyond. Universities and businesses alike are getting into the spirit as well, be it decorating, dressing up or having parties. It might not be as important to everyone as it was in pagan times, but its popularity is on the rise in different ways today.