What Happens During Calan Gaeaf & Nos Calan Gaeaf in Wales?

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Many different cultures seem to have a celebration at the end of October or the first of November. Some celebrate Halloween on October 31 and All Saint’s Day on November 1. Druids, Wiccans, and Pagans may celebrate Samhain, an ancient Celtic celebration on those days. Many in Mexico celebrate the Day of the Dead.  

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You may have heard of some of those special days but you may not have heard of Calan Gaeaf, celebrated during the harvest in late October.

What is Calan Gaeaf and Nos Calan Gaeaf?

Calan Gaef is the name for the first day of winter in Wales. The night before is called Nos Calan Gaeaf. 

Wales is a country that’s part of the United Kingdom. It shares an island with England and although many of the inhabitants speak English, Welsh inhabitants still maintain their own cultural identity. In fact, it is also estimated that over 800,000 of the more than 3 million people in the country still speak Welsh.

It’s important to understand the distinction between Wales and England, so you can know that even though Calan Gaeaf is celebrated in one part of the United Kingdom, it isn’t celebrated in the other. The English celebrate Halloween similar to how Americans celebrate it.

Nos Calan Gaeaf even influenced how Americans celebrate Halloween.

ยป MORE: When someone dies, they leave a life behind. This checklist takes you through the next steps.

 

When is Calan Gaeaf?

Calan Gaeaf is on November 1 each year, so Nos Calan Gaeaf is the night before — October 31. 

Calan Gaeaf and Nos Calan Gaeaf Traditions

Here are some examples of rituals and traditions that the people of Wales have been involved in over the course of time.

Dancing

Women and children initially danced around a village fire on Nos Calan Gaeaf. During the dance, each person would write his or her name on a rock and place the stone in and around the fire. When the light began to die, the villagers would return home. 

The Welsh dancers would check the rocks the next day. A missing stone was thought to be a death omen. 

Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta

What’s Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta? A black sow without a tail! Village dancers in north Wales were afraid of Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta and would run home after the Nos Calan Gaeaf fire burned out so the sow would not eat their souls. 

Lady in White

While the children in north Wales were frightened by a black sow, the children in the south were terrified of the Lady in White. Some family stories imply that this woman was also headless. 

The Lady in White would lure villagers to their doom by asking for help. She would also try to trick people by offering treasure. 

Harvest mare

Calan Gaeaf is a harvest festival. When the last corn was harvested in the fields, workers would leave a few stalks uncut. They would play a game with the uncut stalks to see who could successfully reap them.

Once the corn was finally cut, the stalks would be twisted into what was called a “harvest mare.” The successful reaper would then place the harvest mare inside his clothes and try to sneak the item inside the house as the women worked on a giant feast. The women knew what was coming and would meet the man with buckets of water.

The reaper who successfully got the harvest mare into the home undetected was given beer and a place of honor at the table. The mare was hung above the hearth. 

If the farmer was unsuccessful, he was mocked for failing his task.

Feast

Once the harvest had been gathered and the livestock slaughtered, a feast would be held in the community. Everyone enjoyed the banquet cooked by the women in the village. 

Ivy

Welsh boys were told to cut 10 leaves of ivy, throw one away and put the other nine under their pillows.

Doing so enabled the boys to see into the future, and touching the ivy supposedly made them see hags or witches when they slept. 

Roses

Welsh girls were told to grow a rose in the shape of a large hoop, slip through the circle three times before cutting a rose, and placing the bloom under their pillow. This practice enabled the girls to see into the future. 

Mirrors

The practice of trying to see into the future was not only for young girls and boys. Unmarried women were told to darken their rooms during Nos Calan Gaeaf. Afterward, a married woman could look into the mirror to see the face of her future groom. At times, a skull would appear in the mirror. If a skull appeared, the unmarried woman was destined to die within the year. 

If the mirror trick didn’t work, unmarried women were told to peel an apple and throw the skin over their shoulders. The shape that the apple skin made would reveal the first initial of the person she would later marry. 

Avoid churchyards

Welsh people avoided graveyards and crossroads on Nos Calan Gaeaf. It was thought that spirits gathered in those places, and they were to be avoided. 

Avoid tailors

In one part of Wales, people associated tailors with witchcraft. Tailors had the power to bewitch anyone they met. 

Early trick-or-treating

In what seems to be a form of early trick-or-treating, men would dress in rags, masks, or sometimes women’s clothing.

They would go door-to-door, scaring people so they’d give them treats or money. They would then use the money to go drinking in a local pub. 

Turnip carving

In an attempt to scare others passing by, turnips were carved and placed by the side of the road with a candle placed inside them. 

Running around the church

If you were interested in seeing the faces of those who would die in the next year, you could run around the church three times and then look through the keyhole at midnight. Apparently, the faces of the doomed would appear to you. 

How Do You Celebrate?

Chances are that you don’t celebrate Calan Gaeaf or Nos Calan Gaeaf. But you may do something special on Halloween or spend All Saint’s Day remembering a family member who died.  

Regardless of your family’s traditions, it’s interesting to see how early celebrations influence what we do today. You may not carve turnips and place them on the side of the road but you probably do carve pumpkins and put them on your porch. You may not dress in rags and demand money for beer but you probably do give candy to children dressed in crazy clothes.  

No matter where you are from, most people enjoy a scary story during Halloween, and when you do, consider Nos Calan Gaeaf traditions. 


Sources 

  1. Carradice, Phil. “Hallowe'en and Galan Gaeaf.” BBC. 28 October 2011. www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/wales/entries/15146ce0-ddc1-3f0f-80ae-41d9d226d723
  2. “'Encouraging' survey suggests rise in Welsh language speakers.” BBC. 22 September 2018. www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-45611374
  3. Owen, Trefor M. “The Customs and Traditions of Wales.” University of Wales Press, Apr 20, 2016. Print.
  4. “Spooky Wales - Noson Galan Gaeaf.” BBC. www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/articles/zbkdcqt

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