All Hallow’s Eve, also known as Ysbrydnos (Spirit Night) or Halloween, has its roots in the pagan tradition, called Nos Galan Gaeaf, which is Welsh for 'the first night of winter', or Samhain, which is a Gaelic word meaning ‘Summer’s End. November 1st was considered to be the start of the New Year, the date on which the herds were returned from summer pasture and land tenancies were renewed. The Welsh word for November is Tachwedd which means 'The month of slaughter' because on the 1st November, after the harvest, it was also time to cull the livestock. The prime animal stock were selected and would remain to be wintered over to the forthcoming spring. The remaining stock were slaughtered to supply the meat over the coming winter months.
The Celts dressed in animal skins and made Jack O lanterns from turnips (pumpkins were unknown until brought to Britain from America) to ward off evil spirts. Sometimes they wore masks and other disguises to avoid being recognized by the spirits believed to be present. In time witches, fairies, hobgoblins, and demons came to be associated with the day.
Halloween, was a time to remember the dead, when their souls were believed to return to visit their homes. In folklore these spirits were believed to congregate at crossroads and stiles and these were strongly avoided. On this night, gifts of food were left out for the dead, or a place laid at the table for them.
Bonfires, or Coelcerth, would be built on hilltops, to frighten away evil spirits, and from which each villager would light their hearth fires for the winter. Stones with names on would be cast into the fire, and if someone found the theirs the following day, it was considered good luck. However, if the stone with one's name on was missing it was a portent of death! As the fire burned down,and the darkness returned, the villagers would run back to their hearth to escape the nwch ddu gwta, a demon in the shape of a black, tailess sow.
Halloween was thought to be favourable for foreseeing such matters as marriage, and death.An unmarried girl would throw the peel of an apple over her shoulder and whichever letter it most resembled would be the initial of the one she would marry. Another custom involving apples was 'bobbing for apples' where young folk would try to grab an apple from a tub filled with water, using their teeth.
Another tradition connected with the end of the harvest at Nos Galan Gaeaf, was the 'harvest mare' or caseg fedi. This was a 'corn dolly' formed from the very last sheaf of corn, and would eventually take pride of place above the fire hearth as a sign that all the corn was gathered in. The women would have been preparing the harvest feast as the harvest finished. The men would throw their reaping hooks at The Mare and the one who was first to hit it would have the honour of bringing it into into the house with much merriment and jollity, past the women who would attempt to prevent its entry by trying to soak the mare with water, while the men did their best to keep it dry until they had entered the house with it. If successful, the reaper who had brought down the mare and carried it in would be rewarded with beer, if not he would have to sit at the end of the table in disgrace.
These days most of these customs have largely died out, replaced by the more modern ways of celebrating Halloween, although some, like 'bobbing for apples' still remain.
Because Halloween is associated with spirits and demons, I thought I'd end with a short excerpt from my fantasy novella 'Dancing With Fate', which is set in 5th Century Wales and features the scary Ellylldan, Goblin Fire.
Before she could reply, he swept her up and carried her back toward the campfire.
Eos in her chariot had started her journey across the sky and the pearly light showed their camp and the two horses grazing nearby. Never had anything looked so welcome. Never had Terpsichore felt so safe in a man’s arms.
He set her down, near the fire, and wrapped his own brat around her. He wore only his truis, and was bare-chested. “You’re trembling, you’ll catch your death of cold...but that would be better than the fate which almost befell you.”
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