Real Halloween! Nos Galan Gaeaf
All-Hallow’s Eve is a date that’s special to me these days in a way it never was when I was a child. My parents were neither religious nor superstitious and it’s only as an adult, knowing more about the way that my people lived in the past through research for my books, that I’ve started to feel the frisson of this time of year.
Danger. Like many people around the world even now, my ancestors here in Wales were only ever one bad harvest away from serious hardship, even starvation. To confront the wandering spirits that can push through the veil between the corporal and spirit worlds with fire, feasting and feats of daring was a powerful tool to lift a population facing the dark for up to 16 hours a day over a long northern winter.
I love the mad traditional rituals involving root veg. apple bobbing, nut throwing and fire dancing/ leaping. Beating the dark with fire; want with feasting; loneliness and fear with the faces of friends caught in the flames’ light, is both optimistic and defiant and must surely have helped people whose houses had mud floors and were lit by smoking peat fires and tallow candles.
For me the Ladi Wen and the Hwch ddu and Wrachod of Calan Gaeaf are symbols of famine, cold and despair. They do ‘walk abroad’, yet, in facing them together, with merriment, fire and plenty, they can be neutralised. The departed ancestors, revered at this time of year, will help protect the living, help fight back against the gathering dark of a northern winter.
The Christian festival of All Saints on the following day I don’t feel to be the antithesis of a more ancient ‘Halloween’ observance the night before. To honour the dead, to celebrate their attainment of a spiritual over corporal life, is the ultimate expression of comfort and hope. The traditional practices of All Hallows Eve were designed to recognise ‘the dark’ but, rather than to worship it, they attempted to banish it. For me there’s no conflict of interests.
Despite the forecast, it’s been a lovely autumn day here in west Wales, though everything is drenched and a fire would have been a real challenge to build, even if family and friends had been able to join us in the fields. I’ve been fighting back against the dark by making fruit gin from the apples, sloes, rose hips and brambles all around. There are litres and litres of the stuff now, all marinading away in the pantry, waiting for a time when friends and family can come, drink them and help banish the dark thoughts.