Nos Calan Gaeaf - Pumpkins and Pigs
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
Have I maybe mentioned that I love the Autumn? Yes, probably. But you know what else I like about this time of year? Halloween.
It's not a holiday that my family were particularly big on but as an adult, carving pumpkins, spooky stories, fun costumes and lots of sweeties are definitely my jam.
It would be remiss of me then if I didn't make a blog post dedicated to Halloween MAXIMUM EFFECT or as it is more commonly known, Nos Calan Gaeaf.
You think I'm joking? I am not joking, "Welsh Halloween" is a ride. So buckle up and let me tell you all about it.
Very briefly, there are three nights in the Welsh... calendar? ... I guess? Where the veil between us and the spirit world is said to be the thinnest, collectively they're known as the Ysbrydnos and Nos Calan Gaeaf is one of them.
Calan Gaeaf is the first day of winter (November 1st) so the nos night before effectively lines up with modern day Halloween and was a celebration of the end of summer; the last of the harvest gathered, animals sorted and slaughtered depending on which would survive the winter, the summer workforce paid off and moving on, it was a moment to pause and welcome in the shortening of the days and pay respect to those that had passed on.
The festivities usually centred around a bonfire or bonfires and were a gathering for the whole village.
Because that doesn't sound like the set up of a horror film at all.
As with a lot of more modern Halloween stories, the idea of wandering spirits is the basis for a lot of the traditions for Nos Calan Gaeaf.
The Welsh underworld Annwn is ruled by warrior-hunter, psychopomp and buddy of King Arthur, Gwyn ap Nudd who uses the Ysbrydnos as an opportunity to gather any wandering souls and guide them back to Annwn. Often with the help of his hounds, the Cwn Annwn.
And if you've ever heard of the Wild Hunt in any fairy tales, this is usually the fella leading the Hunt.
The Cwn Annwn happen to be one of my favourite Welsh creepy things because they're local, and I always stan a local celeb. Said to haunt Cadair Idris looking for lost souls to shepherd back to the underworld, they're meant to be big white hounds with red ears and eyes, howling in the distance to lead people astray - and for maximum spook factor - the quieter they are the closer they are.
With this in mind, Nos Calan Gaeaf is obviously Gwyn ap Nudd's big night, keeping the spirits in line. Needless to say he has a few other helping hands with this task, and I'm not going to lie, they are not just your friendly neighbourhood ghost hunters.
Hwch Ddu Gwta
What's this 'en? I hear you ask.
Scary af. Is the answer.
Hwch Ddu Gwta translates to 'tailless black sow' - that's not so bad, right? WRONG!
This is a fearsome omen or spirit that takes the form of a large black sow (boar. we're definitely talking boar) that roams around the land gathering up the souls of the dead and generally scaring the life out of unsuspecting welsh folk.
On Noson Calan Gaeaf after the bonfires had died down everyone had to hightail it back home as fast as they could to avoid being caught by the Hwch.
"Adref, adref am y cynta', Hwch Ddu Gwta a gipio'r ola"
'Home, home at once, the Black Tail-less Sow will snatch the last'
And just to make sure that the whole experience was super terrifying, remember those slaughtered animals I mentioned up there at the beginning of this? Sometimes a villager would drape an pig skin over themselves, raise up "from the bonfire" and chase the children home. Excellent stuff. Night terrors for life, thanks neighbour.
Y Ladi Wen
You thought I was going to stop with the pig-ghoul? Nope. Because the Hwch Ddu Gwta is a two for one bargain who travels around with the ghost of a white lady who warns children of bad behaviour.
She is sometimes described as a headless, lady ghost if anyone was filling in the how creepy is creepy bingo card. And when she wasn't travelling with the Hwch she would stand guard at the graveyards to keep the nastier spirits in check. Thank you, Ladi Wen, very appreciated.
It's not a celebration in Wales if the blokes aren't in some sort of costume (see: Mari Lwyd)
On Nos Calan Gaeaf the menfolk would dress up in hideous clothes, masks, and also sometimes animal skins (why, menfolk? why?) supposedly becoming Gwrachod witches and they would "scare" people into handing over snack food whilst chanting out rhymes about the Hwch Ddu and the Ladi Wen. So in essence a very rowdy trick or treat but with apples and nuts instead of Mini Haribo Starmix.
One tradition that we definitely haven't given up on is the carving of a lantern.
The face on the lantern is supposed to act as a deterrent to spirits approaching the house. Some would even place the lanterns out along the road as a way to guide people
Except in Wales it wasn't a pumpkin.
It was a turnip.
Coelcerth and Fortunes
A lot of the remaining festivities and traditions are quite fortune and future centred or if you're a woman, love-life centred (cue massive eyeroll and long sigh)
A familiar tradition was/is Twco 'Fala apple bobbing where the girls would bob for apples and the first to get an apple would be betrothed in the following year.
Sticking with the apples, single ladies would peel an apple and throw the skin over their shoulder, the shape it made landing would be the initial of their true love (did I do the big eye roll and sigh yet?)
People would mark stones with their initial and place them in the Coelcerth bonfire In the morning they would inspect the ashes and a missing stone would be a very bad omen for the following year.
Or, for those who would definitely die first in a horror film, you could run three times around the church at midnight and peer through the keyhole to see the faces of the people that would die that coming year
(NO SERIOUSLY. WHAT.)
Honestly folks, aren't you glad you buckled up?