MANY of us are now familiar with some of our ancestral Welsh traditions – the nightmarish sight of the Mari Lwyd, and the so-called 'Welsh Valentine’s day', Diwrnod Santes Dwynwen. But how many of us know about what we celebrate on the day commonly known as Halloween?

Sunday October 31 marks our own spooky festival – Nos Galan Gaeaf, a night of fortune telling, songs and roaming monsters.

The rituals and customs of this night, thought to mark the official beginning of winter and the 'dark' half of the year, can tell us a lot about our past relationship with death and mourning.

Bonfires and Pig Monsters

Nos Galan Gaeaf is an “ysbrydnos” – a “spirit night”, when the veil between our world and the Annwn (the underworld) was believed to thin, allowing departed souls and ghostly beasts to wander the mortal plane.

There were said to be three such spirit nights – on October 31, April 30 (Nos Galan Mai – the night before May Day) and on the eve of Midsummer, June 24.

The thinning of the spirit veil was thought to create optimal conditions to divine the future, and an abundance of practices sprung up around this theme – most of them centred on the prediction of death or marriage.

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At midnight, those so inclined would race around the parish church three times and then peek through its keyhole, where they would expect to see apparitions of all those who were to die over the year ahead.

More fearful types, meanwhile, would avoid cemeteries and crossroads altogether, believing spirits would gather there.

The National Wales:

Coelcerthi ('bonfires') would be built by the community during the day, with ordinary work set aside.

According to Louvain Rees, historian of death in Wales, once night fell and the fires were lit, families would gather to sing and dance and tell stories, roasting potatoes and apples in the flames. Each would write their name on a stone, and then place it in the fire – if by morning your stone was not amongst the ashes, you would be the next to die.

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Children would be sure to get home before the flames died down – those left outside after the fire went out risked being caught by Y Ladi Wen ('The White Lady') and the Hwch Ddu Gwta ('The Tail-less Black Sow'), a headless spirit and her sinister pig companion.

But they weren’t the only monsters.

The National Wales: Hwch Ddu Gwyta was said to be a black pig missing a tail Hwch Ddu Gwyta was said to be a black pig missing a tail

According to Dee Dee Chaney’s Treasury of British Folklore, it was believed that a procession of white, red-eared "spectral hounds”, known as Cŵn Annwn, would tear across the sky on Nos Galan Gaeaf, led by Arawn, king of the underworld. Anyone who had the misfortune to see or hear the Cŵn Annwn, whose growls and snarls became quieter as they approached, was said to be “doomed to die.”

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In a tradition similar in flavour to the Mari Lwyd, working class men would disguise themselves as 'Gwrachod' – witches - in sheepskins, ragged clothes and masks, going from street to street collecting fruit, nuts, coins and drinks.

The National Wales: Woodcut from 1720 depicting witches handing children to the devil (via the Wellcome Collection)Woodcut from 1720 depicting witches handing children to the devil (via the Wellcome Collection)

Children, meanwhile, would go door to door singing macabre songs. According to Louvain Rees, one such song had the following lyrics:

“O mae Jiwdi wedi marw

A'i chorff hi yn y bedd

A'i hysbryd yun y whilbar

Yn mynd sha Castell Nedd.”

 

In English, this translates roughly as:

 

“O, Judy is dead

and her corpse is in the grave,

and her soul is in a wheelbarrow

going towards Neath.”

These practices, of predicting and singing about and warning of death, Louvain says, was likely to be due in part to the heavy presence of early death and disease in the lives of our ancestors.

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“People were surrounded by death during times gone by,” she said.

“It was very community based, this celebration - everyone was involved with everyone, especially in rural communities, in rural areas, where people were more likely to believe.

“A lot of it too, was about linking to your ancestors.

“This was supposed to be the night when the veil was very thin, and the best time to speak to people that had passed.”

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According to Chaney’s Treasury of British Folklore:

“In centuries past, when many types of illness were often fatal, predictions of death were considered of great importance.

“Death omens abound in Britain, and it sometimes seems that every sound of strange occurrence was viewed as a sign of impending doom.”

When it comes to caring for the dead more generally, Wales has its own interesting history.

One of the oldest known ceremonial burial sites in Western Europe was discovered in Wales – geologists in the 1820s came across the “Red Lady of Paviland” by accident, while excavating mammoth remains in the Gower’s Paviland Cave.

The National Wales: Paviland Cave, where the Red Lady was found (Photo: David Tyers, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)Paviland Cave, where the Red Lady was found (Photo: David Tyers, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Assumed at first to be a female, the roughly 33,000-year-old skeleton, now theorised to have been male, was dyed bright red with ochre and decorated with carved ivory and shell beads.

Along the border with England, a very peculiar tradition – “sin-eating” – is recorded.

Usually impoverished men living in rural areas, sin-eaters would be called in on occasions wherein a person had died suddenly, without the chance to confess their sins. Bread and ale were laid out on the corpse, which the sin-eater would consume – thereby absorbing the sins of the deceased and easing their passage to heaven.

Louvain says the first recorded instance of sin-eating was in Hereford somewhere between 1687-1689.

Despite the apparent self-sacrificial nature of the task, sin-eaters were nonetheless hated among communities. Writer Mathew Moggridge told the Cambrian Archeology Association in 1852:

“It was believed that he really appropriated to his own use and behoof the sins of all those over whom he performed the above ceremony, he was utterly detested in the neighbourhood.”

Learn more about the peculiar and poignant history of death in Wales here.

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