The origins of Halloween go back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (SOW-an). The Celts lived across the lands we now know as Britain, Ireland, and Northern France and were primarily a farming and agricultural people. The Celtic year was determined by the growing seasons and Samhain marked the end of summer and celebrated the Harvest. The festival was the time when folk prepared for the cold, dark winter. It was a time when the weaker livestock was slaughtered, the stronger livestock was put up for wintering, food was put up and, most importantly, it was a time to honor the ancestors.
The Samhain festival was a time for all the people who had participated in the growing and harvesting of the crops, from the farmer to the lowest cowhand, to come together to celebrate. It was a time to pay off the seasonal workers on the farms and bid farewell to the departed, both living and dead.
The Celts believed that this was the time when the veil between the real world and the spirit world would grow thin and porous allowing spirits and the fairy folk to mix in with the world of humans. Places were set at the dinner table to appease and welcome spirits. People fearful of the mischief that fairy folk might cause would leave out offerings of food and drink or crops in an attempt to appease them. Bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits and in memory of departed ancestors. The Celts would connect with the spirits through ritualistic ceremonies that included costumes, special feasts and making lanterns.
In the 9th century, these festivals became bound up with the Christian festivals of All Saints’ Day on 1 November and All Soul’s Day on 2 November. Intent on eliminating pagan beliefs, Pope Gregory III united the Christian All Saints’ Day to 1 November which became known as All Hallows. Because Samhain had fallen the night before All Hallows, it became known as All Hallows Eve or Hallowe’en.
In Wales, 1 November, the first day of winter, was called Calan Gaeaf. The night before was referred to as Nos Galen Gaeaf or Winter’s Eve, also called Ysbrydnos or Spirit Night - when the spirits came out to visit.
On Nos Galen Gaeaf, the people of Wales would celebrate a festival similar to their other Celtic cousins with feasting, bonfires, and prophecies.
In the Middle Ages young children would go door-to-door asking for food or money in exchange for songs or prayers, often said on behalf of the dead. The act was referred to as 'souling’ and the children were called ‘soulers’.
Souling was adopted by the church in the 11th century. Children would go door-to-door asking for soul cakes in exchange for praying for the souls of friends and relatives. They dressed up as angels, demons, saints, or as souls of the dead (and were understood to be protecting themselves from those souls by impersonating them). The soul cakes were sweet with a cross marked on top and, when eaten, they represented a soul being freed from purgatory.
In the 19th century souling gave way to guising or mumming, when children would offer songs, poetry, and jokes - instead of a prayer - in exchange for fruit or money.
During the Samhain festival, the Celts dressed up in white with blackened faces to trick the evil spirits that they believed to be roaming the earth.
The term trick-or-treat was first used in America in 1927 with the tradition brought over to America by immigrants. Guising gave way to threatening pranks in exchange for sweets.
The carving of pumpkins originates from the Samhain festival when Celts would carve turnips to ward off spirits and stop fairies from settling in houses. The name Jack O’Lantern comes from the phenomenon of a strange light flickering over peat bogs, called will-o-the-wisp or jack-o-lantern. Also tied to the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, a drunkard who bargains with Satan and is doomed to roam the Earth with only a hollowed turnip to light his way.
Here are some of the ancient Welsh traditions of Nos Galen Gaeaf or Y Tair Ysbrydnos - Spirit Night:
- You weren’t to go near churchyards, stiles, and crossroads on this night since spirits are thought to gather there.
- Coelcerth - The community would build a bonfire and everyone would add a stone with their name on it. The following morning, if any of the named stones was missing that person would die within the year. Or, at least, have bad luck.
- After the bonfire had gone out, the men would go door-to-door holding the skull of a horse - sometimes real, sometimes artificial - which would ward off bad spirits of the Ysbrydnos.
- After Nos Calan Gaeaf, an elder member of the village would return to the site fo the fire and if any of the stones were missing, that person was allegedly due to die within the year. It is easy to imagine the fear as people looked for stones in the cold light of day. Being frightened soon became an essential part of Nos Galen Gaeaf.
- Y Hwch Ddu Guta - These were terrifying spirits in the form of a tail-less black female pig and a headless woman that would roam the countryside on Nos Galen Gaeaf. There is a children’s rhyme that goes (In Welsh): “Adref, adref, am y cyntat, Hwch Ddu Gwta a gipio’r ola!”; (or English): “Home, home, at once, the Tailless Black Sow shall snatch the last!” Parents wanted their children to think the best place to be was inside their house in front of a roaring fire and not out in the dark being pursued by a Tailless Back Sow and a headless woman!
- You were never to look in the mirror on this night or you might see witches and demons in your sleep
- Eiddiorwg Dalen - don’t touch or smell the ground ivy as it will make you see hags or witches while you sleep. Ivy could also give you the power of prophetic dreams if you prepared it correctly. During the festival, in order to receive prophetic dreams a boy should cut ten leaves of ivy, throw away one and put the other nine under his pillow; for a young girl if was more tedious. She would need to have grown a wild rose around a large hoop and on this night step through it three times, cut it in silence and then place it under her pillow
- A traditional Welsh meal served on Nos Galen Graeaf was called ‘stwmp naw rhyw’, a mash of potatoes, carrots, turnips, peas, parsnips, leeks with salt and pepper, butter and new milk. Into the mash was placed a ring. The girls who made the mash would consume it and the girl to find the ring in her bowl was believed to marry within the year.
- Twco Fala - apple bobbing - the game is played by filling a tub or a large basin with water and putting apples in the water. Players try to catch one with their teeth. The use of arms is not allowed and often are tied behind the back to prevent cheating.
- This night was also one of several nights of the year when the Cwn Annwn (Hounds of the Otherworld) would hunt the souls of wrongdoers for their master, Arawn. The growl of the hounds would be loudest far away and would become softer and softer as they grew nearer. As the sun sets on Halloween, stay clear of Cadair Idris in Snowdonia if you wish to avoid the hunting grounds of Wales' most horrifying creatures.
- Tellwr - In Glamorgan, tailors were associated with witchcraft. They supposedly possessed the power to “bewitch” anybody if they wished.
- Y Ladi Wen - “The White Lady” is the ghost of a lady dressed in white. She is evoked to warn children of bad behavior. She is said to haunt the grounds of Ogmore Castle, protecting it’s buried treasure.
So…the next time you find yourself in Wales on Nos Galen Gaeaf, wander over to Ogmore Castle to see if you can find the Y Ladi Wen, or go walking at night near a churchyard or listen quietly for the Cwn Annwn…hopefully you won’t be chased by the Y Hwch Ddu Guta!