The History of Halloween in Wales

To celebrate Halloween and the launch of my blog, I thought it would be interesting to explore Halloween traditions and rituals from my home country.

Although Wales and the rest of the UK now celebrate Halloween in a more American fashion, with trick or treating and pumpkin carving, the history of Halloween in Wales is particularly unique.

In many rural Welsh communities, the end of autumn was a cause for celebration. Known as Nos Galan Gaeaf or “Spirit Night”, communities would gather and welcome the first day of winter, Calan Gaeaf, on the 1st November.

Women and children would dance around a fire and share a stew made from root vegetables, milk, salt and pepper. When the fire started to die out, everyone would run home as it was rumoured if they stayed out at night, ‘Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta’, a bad omen that took the form of a black pig with a headless woman would devour their souls.

It is believed this tradition was made up by parents as a way of ensuring their children would return home safely on this cold, dark night. One traditional rhyme was sung to warn children they were at risk of being eaten by the beast:

“Adref, adref, am y cyntaf’, Hwch ddu gwta a gipio’r ola’”
(Home, home, at once, The tailless black sow shall snatch the last one)

Another ritual unique to this Welsh celebration would see each person write their name on a stone and throw it into the fire. If a person’s stone was missing the next morning, it was said they would die within the next year

The popular modern day tradition of apple bobbing was prevalent during this festival. It was also said that local tailors practiced witchcraft and could bewitch anybody if they so wished.

Despite some of these dark traditions, Calan Gaeaf was very much a community gathering. A time for rural folk to overcome death and separation as a community. In some ways, Calan Gaeaf has similarities to the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), which focuses on gatherings of family to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died and to support their spiritual journey.

In the 18th century, many of the Calan Gaeaf customs died out. However I believe it is still important to learn about the history of festivities, and the various traditions and practices that took place in different cultures, and to see how they’ve evolved over time.

Happy Halloween!