Nos Calan Gaeaf - A Welsh Hallowe'en

Witches commonly associated with Halloween - via Wellcome Collection.

Described as the weirdest of all the Teir Nos Ysbrydion, Nos Calan Gaeaf or as it is commonly known All Hallows Eve, was widely celebrated throughout Wales. It is the night that "wind blowing over the feet of the corpses" bore sighs to the houses of those who were to die during the ensuing year.

"All those who had been drowned in the sea came up to ride over the waves on white horses, and held remarkable revels."

One of the most common ways to try and frighten people was to hollow out a Turnip and place it on the side of the road or path with a lit candle inside.

Described as a less picturesque version of the Mari Lwyd, boys would dress themselves in women's clothes and vice-versa. They would then go door to door singing very odd rhymes.

Such verses included: 

O mae Jiwdi wedi marw
A'i chorff hi yn y bedd
A'i hysbryd yun y whilbar
Yn mynd sha Castell Nedd. 

(O, Judy is dead and her corpse is in the grave, and her soul in a wheelbarrow going towards Neath.)

It is recorded in Llanfylin, that the 'lower order' of working men would dress themselves in sheep skins and old ragged clothes and mask their faces, going about the houses and streets on Hallowe'en. Called the 'Gwarachod', they used to get coppers, apples, and nuts and drink in public houses. It is thought that the name 'Gwarachod' derives from the supernatural activity that is associated with All Hallows Eve.

Pigs at Llansawel - via People's Collection Wales

Hwch Ddu Gwta (the tailless black sow

On this night, in some parts of Wales, wandering ghosts took the form of a 'ladi wen'. In North Wales, these ghosts took the form of 'Hwch Ddu Gwta' – this was a menacing creature, feared by the strongest of men. These were both connected with the Calan Gaeaf tradition of bonfire lighting after dark.

With the help of enthusiastic young people, the Bonfires would be built during the day time. On this day, ordinary work was set aside and the young people saw it as competition to see whose bonfire would last the longest.

Once the bonfire was lit, potatoes and apples were placed into the fire to roast. There would be much dancing, singing, shouting, and celebration. Some accounts of the custom talk of individuals running through the bonfire and casting stones with their names on into the blaze.

When the fire was almost extinguished, they would run away fearing that the Hwch Ddu Gwta would push them into the bonfire. As they ran, they chanted the following:

Adref, adref am y cynta', Hwch Ddu Gwta a gipio'r ola  - Denbighshire Version.

Hwch Ddu Gwta a Ladi Wen heb ddim pen - Angelsey Version.
Hwch Ddu Gwta a gipio'r ola
Hwch Ddu Gwta nos G'langaea
Llandron yn dwad tan weu sana. 

The following morning, those who cast stones into the bonfire returned to retrieve them. To find them indicated good luck during the next year. If they were not found it was an omen of misfortune and perhaps even of death.

Modern day 'trick or treaters' - via People's Collection Wales. 

Fortune Telling and Other Beliefs

Nos Calan Gaeaf was also a night for divination with reference to matrimony. Below are some interesting ways women sought out their future husbands.

In Tenby, the custom of 'sowing hemp' was carried out by women at midnight.
Having raised a little of the ground the women would chant:

Hemp seed I sow, hemp seed I'll mow;
Whoe'er my ture love is to be
Come rake this hemp seed after me. 

The shape of the person sought would then appear and rake away the hemp seed.

A shovel was placed against the fire, and on it a girl and boy would each place a grain of wheat, side by side. These edged close together, one grain would bob its head and bow, the another would make an awkward curtsy. As they began to swell and look hot, they would clear the shovel at a bound. If both grains went off together, it was a sign that the young couple would jump together in matrimony; but if they took different directions it was an omen of a doomed marriage.

A few other interesting beliefs relating to Hallowe'en in Wales.

On Hallowe'en while, consecrated bells are ringing, witches are hindered from hurting anybody

If at midnight any persons had the courage to run three times around the parish church and then peep through the keyhole of the door, they would see the apparitions of those who were soon to die.

If you sit in the church porch at midnight on Hallowe'en, or all through the night, you will see a procession of all the people who are to die in the parish during the year, and they
will appear dressed in their best garments.

If crows caw round the house in the afternoon of Halloween, there will be a corpse of an inmate or the dead body of an animal belonging to the inhabitant soon.

(Sources: Alun Roderick - Trevor M Owen - Wellcome Images - People's Collection Wales.) 

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