Our vision of life in the country districts of Wales is often coloured by a narrow selection of popular Victorian images. Chapel goers, teetotallers dressed in bible black come to mind, but there was a rich folk tradition that remains largely unknown.
In many parts of Wales, ordinary people in the Eighteenth Century were only one harvest away from famine and destitution, yet our ancestors fought back by gathering together at every opportunity, leaving their dark, damp hovels and meeting outside at the great bonfires on the mountains; cross-dressing adults going from homestead to homestead or tavern to tavern where they’d compete in verse and song for food and drink, or they’d go gaming and dancing in the churchyards or village greens.
Often these practices happened at night and there were strong elements of divination and even suggestions of ancient sacrifice. Special food and drinks were prepared and there were rhymes, verses and spells associated with different times of year.
All-Hallow’s Eve was one of three Ysbryd Nos. On this spirit night, the boundary between the quick and the dead was thin and spirits walked abroad. They could do damage but, if treated properly, could help make wishes come true. Many practices would be familiar to us: apple bobbing; roasting potatoes and nuts, dressing up and going out together into the dark. Yet the thought of the headless spectre Y Ladi Wen and ghosts or witches at every stile and crossroads is not quite ‘trick or treat’! In North Wales it was the tail-less black sow Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta who roamed the night and chilled the soul.
Typically practical, In ‘The Maid’s Trick,’ the lover is charmed with toasted cheese, whilst another Welsh ritual uses root vege! Everyone ate the Stwmp 9 rhyw (mashed potatoes, carrots, peas, turnips, parsnips, leeks, pepper and salt) in which a ring was hidden. If you found it, you would be the first to be married in the new year. Or you conjured your lover by walking nine times around the bonfire holding an empty glove and chanting, ‘This is the glove, but where the hand?’ In earthy Cardiganshire you walked around your dung heap nine times holding a shoe saying, ‘Here’s the shoe, but where’s the foot?’
What will you be doing for Halloween this year?