Nos Calan Gaeaf
October is the month of falling leaves, beautiful nature and Halloween! In Wales, the 31st October is also known as Nos Calan Gaeaf – the night before ‘the first of winter’ – when it was commonly believed that supernatural influences were intensified and that the spiritual veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest. Nos Calan Gaeaf was one of three Spirit Nights (Ysbrydnos) in the folklore calendar and many traditions grew up around the night. Almost inevitably, they were connected with things frightening or disconcerting…but it was also a time to have some fun!
Ghosts, witches and goblins were believed to appear at midnight on this night, especially on the entrances to footpaths, crossroads, at stiles and in churchyards. One of the most frequent ghosts which appear in Welsh folklore is the ‘y ladi wen' (Lady in White) – our very own Oystermouth Castle has one!
Nos Calan Gaeaf was also the night to be aware of the Hwch Ddu Gwta or the black, tail-less sow – a huge black beast with red eyes that could crush the bones of any person who crossed its path and was said to seize souls and carry them off to the underworld.
Canwyll Corph (Corpse Candles) was also to be feared. These ghostly lights would be seen passing along the route of an upcoming funeral, or hovering around the spot where an accident would happen. They would also flutter along the edge of the waves in anticipation of a shipwreck.
In Pagan times Jack O’ lanterns - originally made from turnips – were used as a lantern to guide the dead back to earth. In later years, ugly and scary faces would be carved into swedes or turnips and placed in the windows to ward off evil spirits. Over time, they then became a common way to try and frighten people for fun where a carved turnip would be placed on the side of the road or path with a lit candle inside. Nowadays they have become a common decoration, with the easier to carve pumpkin replacing the turnip!
One of the main Halloween customs in certain parts of Wales involved a great fire, called the Coelcerth. A large bonfire was built near the house, in order to frighten any away any evil spirits. There would be dancing and singing, and apples and potatoes would be roasted in the fire. At the end of the evening, before leaving the fire to burn out, people would throw a white stone with their name written on it into the embers. The following morning, they would return to the remains of the bonfire to look for their stones among the ashes. Those that found them were granted good luck for the coming year. If, however, someone’s stone was missing, the person who threw it in would ‘die before he saw another All Saint’s Eve.’ Imagine the sleepless night you would have hoping your stone would be there!
The custom of dressing up at Halloween has been carried out for many generations in Wales. The original purpose of costumes was however actually out of fear - people wore masks and other disguises to avoid being recognized by the ghosts they thought to be prevalent at Halloween.
Apple Bobbing (Twco Fale) was another popular Halloween custom that we still see today. The size of the apple a person managed to bite denoted how much luck they would get in the forthcoming year.
Another game involved the peeling of an apple in one single piece, which was then thrown over the shoulder. The letter of the alphabet it most closely resembled when it fell to the ground would be the initial letter of the name of the thrower’s future partner in marriage.
It was considered prudent to protect yourself against witches on this particular night. The ringing of church bells were believed to keep witches away, as was wearing your underclothes inside out! To protect against witches coming into the house, it was advised to hang a hag stone (glain nadredd) – a stone with a naturally occuring hole in it - by the door, preferably on a red cord, for added protection.
Many of these Nos Calan Gaeaf customs have over time died out. The ghost story however is one tradition that has remained steadfast. As we do today, people of many generations ago enjoyed a good ghost story by the fire. Tales of headless horsemen, spectral wraiths, ghosts, goblins, witches and supernatural beings would be told in the fire light, knowing of course that when they woke up on 1 November everything will be back to normal – hopefully!!!
A Coachman with an 'unusual' passenger outside Castle Malgwun
Source: People’s Collection Wales
Girl with Dog
Image source: Pinterest
Abridged version appeared in Mumbles Times October Edition.