October 31st is now generally known as Halloween; a contraction of All Hallows Eve. The eve of the feast of All Saints, which occurs on the 1st November, it is now another excuse for a party and an opportunity for confectionery sales. Widely regarded as a bit of fun for the children, and also by many as a time not to answer the door, Halloween is a long, long way from its Celtic origins.
Calan Gaeaf; the eve of Winter
The Welsh for Halloween is Nos Galan Gaeaf; it is the night before Calan Gaeaf, the first day of winter. In Celtic tradition the time was known as Samhain and stood for roughly the same thing but translates as ‘end of summer’. November 1st is the beginning of the Celtic New Year and therefore the night of October 31st is seen as the limbo time between summer and winter. In this transitional time it was believed that the world of the living and the world of the spirits were close enough for the spirits to walk the earth. All the hearths were extinguished and not re-lit until the next day as a precaution against the dead feeling too at home.
November, or Tachwedd, is also traditionally the month for slaughtering the animals to provide meat for the winter. At this time bonfires were lit to sanctify the cattle for slaughter and even nowadays some still walk the cattle between two bonfires.
Halloween is steeped in ancient Welsh tradition
Many of the familiar practices that we now see at Halloween have their roots in ancient lore. The immigrants took these practices to America and as they have gradually changed to fit the times many believe them to be American customs. But behind the plastic, the fake blood beverages and the garish sweets there are still clear glimpses of these ancient beliefs and by upholding the traditions we are actually honouring our past.
One such belief was the bonfire. In Wales it was known as the Coel Goeth and was believed to hold powerful magic. Each member of the family would mark a white stone and throw it into the fire; if any stones were missing the next day it meant there would be a death before the year was out. The practice of burning bonfires was gradually replaced by the carving of pumpkin, or often most likely a swede, and placing a candle inside. Seen as a time for divination and fortune telling, there were ritual games with nuts and apples which were thought to possess magical significance. Apple bobbing, or Twco Fala, was said to indicate the future; it was believed that whoever brought up the first apple between their teeth was destined to wed soonest; a popular practice amongst young girls who couldn’t wait to have a home of their own. In fact, despite modern changes, it would probably get the girls gathered round the trough even today.
The custom of trick or treating
Masks were worn to avoid being recognised by the spirits, and dressing up for Halloween became a remnant of that. There has long been a tradition of mumming, where folk would dress up and travel around giving performances, a glimpse of which remains in many of our modern traditions. Once widespread was the custom of soul cakes, whereby the poor would dress up and go from home to home begging for soul cakes in return for prayers for the dead. Every housewife had a batch ready and they were given and received gratefully. When this custom died out it was gradually replaced by gifts of sweets or money. Add to this the custom of pranking, that was believed to mimic the behaviour of the spirits, and you have the perfect recipe for the now frivolous practice of trick or treat.
No self respecting custom would be the same without its familiar food and drink, but there is very little record of what was eaten to mark this occasion. As we have already seen, nuts and apples were thought be strong elements of magic, and it is no surprise that they are also traditional produce of the season. The hollowed out pumpkin or swede, again a major seasonal contribution, would have been used in a cawl or stew. Both comforting and warming on a dark and frightening night, that was full of real superstition and fear, this bowl of sustenance would have been shared and enjoyed by the whole community. There would have been specially baked cakes, particularly gingerbread, that were always baked to celebrate the onset of winter, as well as the much loved treacle toffee, or taffi triog, which we still enjoy today. Much of these foods are things that I associate with bonfire night, but looking back at the ancient customs, although each has their own significance, they all have one thing in common; a celebration of autumn and winter and the unmistakeable sense of excitement that hangs in the air. Whatever our spiritual or religious beliefs, it cannot be denied that there is a frisson that crackles in the air at this time of year. Perhaps it really is magic. via bodnant-welshfood.co.uk
In Wales people build Halloween fires on the Vigil of Samhain. The celebration is very sombre. Each of the family is to write his or her name on a white stone which is then thrown in the fire. Then all of the family members march around a fire, praying for good fortune. The next morning, after the fire has died out, each member sifts through the ashes to search for the stone. If any stone is missing, it means that the spirits will call upon the soul of that person during the coming year. via jackolanterns.net
Today, Halloween seems all about plastic pumpkins and trick or treating. But the festival has deep religious roots.
Originally, the end of October was marked by Samhain, when the Celts celebrated the end of summer and beginning of winter.
“Like many Celtic holidays, Halloween was adopted by the Christian church, and was re-created as the festivals of All Saints on 1 November, and All Souls the day after,” said Emma Lile from the National History Museum at St Fagans.
“But even though they tried to adopt the festival as their own, the church still acknowledged elements; that it was a time to remember the dead.”
So traditionally, it has been a far more sombre occasion. Masks were worn to ward off bad spirits rather than for fun.
Instead of dressing up, children would dance round bonfires before running away as the flames died out for fear of the ‘black sow’, chanting:
‘Home, home, let each try to be first,
and may the tail-less black sow take the hindmost.’
It was also believed that if you peeked through the keyhole of a church at midnight, you would see which parishioners were likely to die that coming year.
Bobbing for apples also dates back to this period.
“The size of the apple denoted how much luck you’d get in the forthcoming year,” she said.
“They would also throw the peel of an apple over their shoulder and whichever letter it most resembled would be the initial of the one you’d marry.
“So for centuries, apples have been connected with health and happiness.”
Another tradition popular among single girls was to create a “mash of nine sorts,” which included vegetables, salt and milk, with a ring hidden inside. The first to find it would be the first to marry.
“Girls would also bake a cake with nine ingredients,” said Emma. “They would then walk backwards upstairs to bed, holding their hands behind their back. They would then dream of either a coffin, or of the one they would marry.
“They would also eat salt before going to bed. Whoever they dreamed of coming to give them water would be their husband.”
While the art of carving a face in a vegetable dates back centuries, local people would have used a swede or turnip rather than the American-style pumpkin, and use them to ward off the evil spirits.
“They believed that the distance between the living and the dead was far closer, especially at this time of year,” she said. via bbc.co.uk