Updated: Oct 30, 2020
Our brand new Cardiff Dark Side free walking tour was supposed to launch this weekend ahead of Halloween 2020, but unfortunately the current "firebreak" lockdown in Wales has delayed that temporarily. Nonetheless, Halloween time still offers an opportunity to revisit some of Wales's more unique traditions relating to this period of the year.
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 these early days of winter.
Nos Galan Gaeaf is the Welsh language term for Halloween, referring to the eve of the first day of winter, and an equivalent to the pagan, Iron-age, Irish festival of Samhain (Summer's End). It was a celebration that marked the end of harvest season and the start of winter that took place in Wales annually. It was also considered to be the Celtic New Year, and an opportunity for the souls of the departed to return briefly, much like Mexico's Day of the Dead, for example. The occasion was eventually adopted by the Romans 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.
Throughout history there are many similarities from these celebrations in Wales with what we think of today as modern Halloween. It would be a time to pay-off the seasonal workers on 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 to their homes (albeit usually a man covered in a cloth or animal skin.) The ritual represents the release of the souls of humans and animals, and a chance for those who had died to return for a visit, but it was probably just a fun and effective way of getting children to bed.
People also set bonfires on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits, and they sometimes wore masks and other disguises, such as dressing in animal skins, 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. Perhaps it's no coincidence that what we often consider to be a typical witches outfit is very similar to traditional Welsh dress.
Other traditions particular to Calan Gaeaf, or Halloween, in Wales include :
1. Coelcerth: Each person at a festival would scratch their name onto a stone and throw it into a fire. If any stone was missing when the fire went out, that person would supposedly 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 dark 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.
8. The custom of “trick-or-treating” has its origins in a ritual wherein the elders of a village or town would go from house to house and receive offerings of food and gifts for the souls of dead friends and relatives that would be visiting that night.
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, or in pre-Covid times at least, 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.
Fogo's Free Tours offers free walking tours of Cardiff, Cardiff Bay, Swansea and now the Cardiff Dark Side Tour as well, where we delve deeper into more sinister side of Cardiff's history, from executions to hangings, from medieval torture to pirates, and more.
A more consistent and regular tour schedule will hopefully be available once again as soon as is possible, but please keep an eye on our homepage for the most up to date tour information.