Halloween in Wales

Halloween. It is one of the oldest festivals  of all, and represents a curious mixture of many different traditions. The  Celts called it Samhain, a festival  that provided a boost for people as they entered the long dark winter months  when the countryside seemed dead and the days seemed so short. Over time it  became mixed in with All Saints Day, a day set aside for those poor saints who  didn’t have a day of their own.
Originally it represented the end of the  harvest season and the beginning of a new year. The Welsh term for the festival  is Nos Calan Gaeaf – a reference to  the beginning of winter. As we all know today it is regarded as a time when the  boundaries between the living and the dead become blurred.
A door to another reality opened up briefly and all sorts of horrors spilled  out.  So bonfires were lit to frighten  away the spirits.  This was the time in  the Welsh tradition when Hwch Ddu Cwta appeared – the Black Sow.
They would light bonfires and roast apples (and  in later years potatoes) and leap through the flames to bring good luck. Then  they would throw stones in the fire and run home to escape Hwch Ddu who would  be on the prowl. On the first of November they would return to look for their  stone. If they could find it then you were guaranteed good luck for the New  Year. If you couldn’t then you were facing bad luck, or even death.
Apples played an important part in Samahin  because it came at the end of the apple  harvest and there were plenty around.  Apple  bobbing was common. The most successful technique, assuming they had no stalks,  was to plunge into the barrel and trap the apple against the bottom. Boys have  always been so competitive. In another apple game, one was tied to a stick  suspended from the ceiling with a candle tied to the other. It was spun around  and you had to catch the apple with your teeth. How they laughed when someone  got a face full of wax.
There was also the “Puzzle Jug.” It had many  spouts and you had to guess which one was correct. Get it wrong and you would  be soaked by beer or cider. I bet they could hardly wait for the invention of  television.
A lot of the traditions seem to centre upon  finding a partner.
In Montgomeryshire villages they would make  a large vegetable mash in which a ring would be hidden. The local girls would  dig into it with wooden spoons. The one who found it would be the first to be  married. In Carmarthenshire nine girls would gather together to make a pancake  of nine ingredients. They would divide it up into nine pieces and eat it. As a  result they would, before morning, have a vision of their future husband. Which  may – or may not have been a good idea.
In Scotland, as you can see similar  traditions outlined in Robert Burns’ poem Halloween. A girl could eat an apple in front of a mirror and she would see her future  husband looking over her shoulder, presumably telling her that the porridge  needed stirring.
Alternatively she could hang a wet shirt sleeve in front of the fire to dry and  watch it closely. At midnight the spirit of her future partner would appear and  turn it round.
Now I have to say that when our daughter Jennie was a baby we would often sit  her in front of the tumble drier. She loved it. She would sit for hours  watching the clothes spin round. You could get a lot done whilst she sat there.  And yet I feel I should point out that  never once did her intended Dan appear in  spirit form and turn her bibs around. I mean, I know it is a long way from  Louth, even for a spirit, but it does suggest to me that as a way of predicting  the future, drying clothes is at best unreliable.
Everywhere Halloween has been a time for “the  universal walking abroad of spirits,” a time when the boundaries between our  world and the spirit world are momentarily lowered. A time of inversion, when  everything was turned upside down. In parts of Wales it became a bit of a  cross-dressing festival. Boys and girls would swap clothes and go from home to  home, chanting verses and spells and asking for gifts of fruit or nuts which  were used to predict the future.
Other boys might dress up in sheepskins and  rags and blacken their faces. They were the gwrachod (hags or witches) and they would look for gifts of apples or nuts or beer.  Their job was to drive away evil spirits from the home. Clearly an early  variation on the theme of “trick or treat.”
Of course, these days the role of the “Trick  or Treaters” themselves has changed. It is those who arrive wearing witches hats  and black bin bags who are  the evil  spirits and who should be driven away.

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