Where I now live in rural west Wales many ancient rituals and customs still survive. The Country is rich in folklore and mythology as well as Ghosts aplenty. Every season and practise has its special rites but The Festival of All Saints is still one of the most celebrated.
The festival of All Saints on the 1st of November originated in 7th century Rome. The festival was originally held in May and dedicated to Mary & The Martyrs but was subsequently changed to its present date under the Protestant church. The 3rd day of the festival (November 2nd) was celebrated as All Souls day and commemorated the souls of the deceased trapped in purgatory, for whom release prayers are offered. Although, this practise which originated in the 9th century was largely abandoned by the church. They were later merged into a general commemoration and remembrance of the dead. The festival also combined many ancient associations with the season, the gathering in of the harvest and the eve of winter.
All Hallows Eve, is the strangest of the three nights of the festival; on this night spirits roam abroad. It was believed that the ghosts of the dead could be seen at midnight and until recently country children would fear to go out of the house alone. In some parts of the Wales - particularly the south and west, the wandering ghosts took the form of a White Lady, while in the north it was a tail-less black sow that terrorised the hearts of brave men. To protect the living from these terrifying spectres bonfires would be prepared all around the countryside on prominent hilltops and high ground. Villages would compete to see whose bonfire could be kept burning the longest and during the days preceding Halloween normal work would be laid aside as villagers gathered huge stockpiles of wood, gorse, fern and straw. The bonfire was lit to the sound of horns and other musical instruments and once ablaze potatoes and apples would be placed into the fire to roast. Around the fire was dancing and singing and in some accounts the revellers would run through the smoke and flames. In some parts of Wales it was also the custom to cast stones into the fire, to be collected later from the embers. As the fire died, people would rush back to their homes to avoid meeting the ghosts and spirits who hid in the darkness. The following day, the stones would be collected from the ashes, to find your own stone indicated good luck for the year ahead but misfortune, even death might befall those whose stones were not recovered.
In many parts of the country, a traditional supper of a stew or mash of 'Nine parts' (nine ingredients) was made and a wedding ring was frequently concealed within the stew.
Whoever found the ring, it was said, would be the first to marry in the coming year. Apples were tied by twine and hung in front of the fire to roast and then added to boiling ale in a Wassailing Bowl. Games were played and many of them were concerned with foretelling the future. One of the most popular throughout Wales was the catching of apples in the teeth. Apples were placed into a large bowl, filled to the brim with water, each participant trying in turn to bite into an apple. In parts of West Wales, silver coins were inserted into the apples which were tied with string and suspended from the ceiling. Apples were also frequently used in the games of divination. The apple had to be peeled carefully keeping the skin in one piece; the rind was then thrown over the shoulder and as it landed the letter it most closely resembled would be the initial letter of future husband or wife. In Carmarthenshire, nuts would be distributed amongst the partygoers. Each in turn threw their nut into the fire, if it burned brightly the thrower would still be alive a year hence; if not, then misfortune and death was foretold. Nuts for use at these divinations were sold at fairs. Nuts could also used to discover if a wife or husband was faithful.
Another form of divination used seeds or grains of wheat. A shovel was placed onto the fire and onto a boy and girl placed a single grain, side by side. If they jumped off the pan together in the same direction it was a sign the two would jump together in matrimony; if they jumped at different times or in different directions the future outcome was less happy. In some parts of Wales, ivy leaves were used instead of seeds or grains. Leaves with pointed tips were called 'male' and those with rounded ends were 'female'. The leaves were thrown into the fire and if they curled toward one another it symbolised marriage. The fire and the ashes were also used for foretelling a future spouse; in mid Wales this involved a complicated ritual in which furrows were made in the ashes and a series of questions asked. Yet another means of divining the future was practised using three bowls, one filled with clean water (or milk), a second with earth and the third with stagnant water. Blindfolded participants plunged their hands into one of the bowls. The clean water signified a successful life, the earth indicated death and the stagnant water meant marriage followed by death. Variations on this custom indicated marriage, widowhood or life without marriage.
The spirits were also evoked to play their part and many supernatural methods of divination were employed on All Hallows Eve, often in the Churchyard and usually at midnight.
A man would walk around the church nine times; holding an empty glove and chanting "Here's the glove, now where's the hand?" The spirit of his future sweetheart would then appear and stretch forth her hand. In mid and west Wales, the person walked around a dung-heap or a leek bed rather than the church and in some variations they carried a seed or nut which the spirit of their future lover would appear and collect. No response to these rituals surely meant no marriage and the appearance of a coffin meant certain death. In southeast Wales the person seeking information wore his coat inside out and recited the Lord's prayer backwards as he walked around the church. After his last circuit, he entered the porch and peered through the keyhole of the church. Through it would be seen the apparitions of all those who would die in the village in the coming year.
Further west, the person would enter the church and would hear the names of all those about to die being called or named. Yet another place of great significance on Halloween were crossroads, places where spirits and ghosts were traditionally said to linger. At midnight, women sowed hemp seeds at crossroads and chanted that their true love might appear in spirit to rake the seeds. Dreams were also useful at foretelling the future and often involved elaborate preparations. One involved the young maid stoking the fire and setting an grand table with fine foods. She then stripped off her clothes and washed them in a pail of clean water, placing her underclothes to dry over a chair near the fire. She then retired to await the appearance of her future spouse in her dream. Other preparations involved placing objects; some specially made, under the pillow or bedding. In the west this would often be a sheep's shoulder blade with nine holes carefully bored through it. In mid Wales, a pair of garters and in other parts nine different kinds of wood.
Of course, Halloween was open to practical jokes and it was a frequent occurrence for local youths to frighten people by hollowing out a turnip before placing a lighted candle inside and hanging it on a tree or gatepost. In east Wales, men dressed as women and wandered from house to house singing lewd songs and drinking strong ale. In the Welsh borders, the men would dress as hags and witches and go around the village demanding gifts or playing tricks on those who refused. Apples, nuts and specially made cakes were provided to ensure that trouble did not befall the household that night.
Within these old rituals we can see the forebears of many of the modern Halloween customs; bobbing for apples, trick or treating and the supposed wandering of ghosts and spirits. Throughout Wales and throughout the entire British Isles, rituals and rites marked All Hallows Eve and indeed they still do - although they have been replaced in recent years by imported American fancy dress and ghost hunting TV shows. The divining for spouses and fortune telling has moved away from the fireside and the dreams of young lovers to embrace psychic phone lines; but our love for Halloween remains undimished if a lot more commercialised.
© Steve Parsons 2011