Halloween in Wales
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 s