The origins of Halloween in Wales 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 farming and agricultural people. The Celtic year was determined by the growing seasons and Samhain marked the end of summer and celebration of the Harvest. The festival was the time when folk prepared for the cold, dark winter. It was a time when the weaker livestock were slaughtered, the stronger livestock were put up for wintering, food was preserved 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 to come together to celebrate. It was a time to bid farewell to the departed, both living and dead.
The Celts believed Samhain was 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 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:
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!