Nos Galan Gaeaf
There is no particular reason why the Christian festival of, ‘All Saints’ should be on November 1st, and thus its eve October 31st, unless it is an appropriation of the ancient Celtic tradition known as, ‘Samhain’ or, ‘end of summer’.
Today, Halloween has become yet another commercial opportunity, in which children, and thus their parents, are inundated with ways of spending their money, dress up as film and television ‘monsters’ and roam around their streets, proclaiming ‘trick or treat’ in a reasonable approximation of an American accent and gaining sweets and perhaps money. Indeed, Halloween seems very American, and has become open to criticism as a result. The truth is, however, the Americans seem to be maintaining the ghost of the traditional much better than ourselves.
Calan Gaeaf was believed to be the first day of winter, and corresponds to the wider Celtic tradition of Samhain, which translates to much the same meaning. November 1st was effectively the beginning of the Celtic New Year, and as Halloween is believed to be the time when all spirits are at liberty, so Samhain was believed to be a time when the boundary between the realm of the dead and the living was frayed sufficiently for the spirits to roam the earth. To our ancestors, November, or Tachwedd was also the time when livestock were slaughtered to provide food through the winter. The Saxons called November, ‘Blōtmonath’ or, ‘month of blood sacrifices’ for this reason. Throughout the British Isles, there is a tradition of bonfires being lit as part of a ceremony that would sanctify the slaughter, and in some isolated parts of Wales, there is still a tradition of walking cattle between two lit bonfires before sending them to slaughter.
Before the advent of electric lighting, this time of year, with its hours of long dark would have lent itself to the superstitious, the collective frisson of fear enhanced by the gatherings of the often willingly credulous. The long nights of candle light would have heightened the fears of the people huddled about the flickering flame, no fire in the hearth for fear of the dead being attracted to the lost warmth.
Many of the customs and traditions that are associated with Nos Galan Gaeaf have lost the clarity of their origins, have become vague and transparent, annexed by commercialism. When were they lost? The Industrial Revolution began the flow of peoples from the countryside into the emerging towns and cities, where their customs and traditional beliefs began to fade beneath the labours of their long hours amongst the cacophonous noise of the factory. Perhaps amongst the multitudes, traditional beliefs that had tied communities together began to fade, or were overwhelmed by exhaustion and poverty. Traditional communities simply fell apart, and so did their myths and legends. Did they leave their beliefs in the fields they left behind? The notion of free time, when people gathered together in celebration or otherwise simply disappeared in the face of the demand of employers to work all the hours possible, or be labelled idle and a drain on what was ironically called, ‘society’. It is a prevailing ideology that is perpetuated even today by those hypocrites that have often inherited their wealth and status. Nos Galan Gaeaf suffered thus, as did many traditional festivals.
Despite the belief that the boundaries between the land of the dead and the living were frayed and that the Otherworld, Annwn was as accessible as at any time during the year, the festival of Samhain, Nos Galan Gaeaf or Halloween did not begin as one of fear and terror. It was a celebration, an opportunity to revel in the profundity of the summer and autumn harvests. The focus on the tenuous membrane ‘tween the lands of the living and the dead, the delicious shock of the terrors came later.
The custom of, ‘Trick or Treating’ now seems very American, but in truth it has its origins much further back than the migrations across the Atlantic. During Nos Galan Gaeaf, mummers would dress up in often outlandish costume and wear masks to hide themselves from spirits. They would travel around a community door to door, giving performances, for the price of food and drink. This, of course, is very similar to the current custom of, ‘Trick or Treating’ as well as such traditions as ‘Mari Lwyd’, associated with Christmas. The poor would also dress up and go from home to home at this time and be given what were called, soul cakes, in return for prayers for the departed, an effort to appease the spirits that were thought to be abroad. It is possible that the ‘trick’ was the custom of pranking that was common in some communities, copying the mischievousness of the spirits abroad.
Recipe for Soul Cakes
375g self-raising flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp mixed spice
185g butter, at room temperature
155g caster sugar
Preparation: 15 minutes
Cooking: 15 minutes
Ready in: 30 minutes
Preheat oven to 220 C / Gas 7. Grease baking tray or line with parchment.
Sift dry ingredients into a medium-sized bowl. Rub in the butter. Mix in the sugar, currants and sultanas.
Make a well in the centre and add the egg and milk. Mix in well until you have a firm mixture. Using a dessertspoon and fork, spoon the mixture onto greased trays.
Bake for 10 to 15 minutes in preheated oven.
Many of the foods associated with Nos Galan Gaeaf, Halloween and even Bonfire Night, were really simply produce that was common to the season. Nuts were often eaten and sometimes thrown into the flames of a bonfire, with the means of their burning believed to say something of the future. The custom of apple-bobbing or, ‘Twco Fala’ is another example. A bucket would be filled with water, apples would be floated on the surface, and the young, with their hands behind their backs would bob for the apples. Whoever was the first to lift their face from the water with an apple between their teeth was believed to be destined to be wed first. Many myths originated from efforts to discern a future spouse, usually a husband. Indeed, on Nos Galan Gaeaf, it was believed that should a woman wish to know the man she would marry, she had only to extinguish all light within a room and in the full dark face a mirror. The image of her future spouse would appear aglow behind her. However, if a skull should appear, then it was fated that she would die within the year.
And at mention of that dark tradition, it seems fair to discuss the more fearful customs that became associated with Nos Galan Gaeaf. While people believed that this day was the time when the spirit world and that of the living was separated by little, there was a respect and a reverence that seemed to preclude a desire to tease with the spirits, to encourage their attention. There was little mention of evil, or that the dead was ever associated with evil. Instead, as has been said, celebrations focused on the end of the harvest and the beginning of the winter true. But there were some contradictions of course. For while fires would not be lit in homes for fear of attracting spirits lured by the warmth, bonfires became popular within communities. The light and the warmth (October and November always seemed so much colder than today) brought communities together.
As time went on, the day became focused on the belief that witches, ghosts and the like were allowed full reign, that evil was abroad. It was believed that people should avoid churchyards for fear of meeting the dead, and never linger at ever menacing crossroads and stiles, since spirits were apt to gather there.
Families, and sometimes entire communities would often practice a custom called ‘Coelcerth’. Each person would gather a stone and scratch their name upon the surface. The stone would be thrown into a fire, or a bonfire on the evening of Nos Glan Gaeaf. If on the following morning, any of the named stones were missing from within the ashes, that person would, it was believed, die before the end of the year. You can, I’m sure imagine the opportunities for mischief within this tradition.
Perhaps the most frightening was the belief in Y Hwch Ddu Gwta, the Black Short-tailed Sow. This hideous creature was believed to emerge from Annwn through the ashes of bonfires and prey upon the unwary at stiles. There are a number of Welsh rhymes which warn those that would linger on the evening of the festivities, and as many were not written down, they have evolved through the years.
hwch gynffon byr du
Nyddu a gwehyddu
Ar Galan Gaeaf
Bydd y Hwch Ddu Gwta yn cael y diwethaf
Black short tailed sow
On a stile
Spinning and weaving
On Nos Galan Gaeaf
Y Hwch Ddu Gwta will get the last
The ‘Ladi Wen’, White Lady was also believed to be abroad on Nos Galan Gaeaf, and is thought to be associated with the Ceridwen of medieval Welsh poetry, keeper of the cauldron from which poets, including Taliesin would gain inspiration.
People were advised to avoid ground ivy on Nos Galan Gaeaf. It was believed that touching or smelling this plant would make you see the spirits of the dead and witches too. It was believed some would intentionally do so in order to communicate with those from the otherworld. It was also believed that if prepared in the correct fashion, ground ivy would give one the power of prophetic dreams.
Today Halloween, Nos glan Gaeaf is an opportunity to frighten and be frightened, to over indulge and to create a little mischief. Even efforts to reinvigorate the old customs, seem rather a means to have a party, and so be it. But there was a time when Nos Galan Gaeaf was a tradition which venerated the connection between the people and the land, the dark and the light, the living and the dead.