History of Halloween

As Halloween draws near, we are once again indebted to Bluestone’s resident historian and storyteller, Terry John, for stepping up to the blog plate once more with tales of customs past (and a recipe)…

Apples or pears, a plum or a cherry,

Any good thing to make us merry,

One for Peter, two for Paul, And one for Him who made us all

Then up with the kettle. Down with the pan. Give us an apple and we’ll be gone

If you hear this rhyme being chanted outside your lodge at Bluestone on All Hallows Eve this year, don’t be surprised. Someone is observing a custom once widespread in Wales, when groups of people went from house to house singing at the tops of their voices, hoping to receive some goodies and blessing the families within in return.

It was vital to receive those blessings, or to be protected in some way, for All Hallows Eve, or Halloween as we know it, was one of the most supernaturally dangerous nights of the year.

All Hallows Eve, Nos Galan gaeaf, was the night on which the spirits of the dead roamed abroad. It was believed that at midnight it was possible to see the ghost of a dead person sitting on every stile, whilst the lanes and bye-ways were roamed by innumerable white ladies, wandering ghosts that appeared without warning.

Most terrifying of all was the hwch ddu gwta, the tail-less black pig, which was reputed to follow people making their way home after dark and which would snatch up those lingering behind. As far as I know, there are no black pigs haunting Bluestone, but just in case, here’s how you can avoid being carried off by the monster; simply light a bonfire and dance round it, blowing horns, shouting and jumping up and down. Then, just to make sure, circle the blaze yelling ’Home, home, let each try to be the first and may the Black Sow take the last’, and then run for it!

The verse varied from area to area, but you get the general idea. Our ancestors regarded this as an infallible charm against the evils abroad on All Hallows Eve, but just to add to the proceedings they placed apples and potatoes in the fire to roast, which were eaten before everyone headed home. Sometimes, stones were thrown into the flames before departure. The following day, everyone returned and searched through the ashes; if they could find their particular stone it was an indication of good luck for the twelve months ahead.

On such a night, crackling with supernatural energy, it wasn’t surprising that people hoped to divine the future. Apples were a useful instrument – if one was carefully peeled without a break or crack, the peel was thrown over the shoulder and the letter of the alphabet that it formed as it lay on the floor would reveal the initial of one’s future spouse. Nuts and wheat grains, because of their links with the harvest that had just been gathered in, would be thrown onto a fire and if they flared up a marriage within the year was forecast.

Another and much eerier method of divination was practised at Tenby. At midnight, unmarried women would make their way to a cross-roads, where they stood in the centre of the road and dug up a small mound of earth. This was known as ’sowing hemp’ and the women would then chant the following verse:

Hemp seed I sow, hemp seed I’ll mow

Whoe’er my true love is to be

Come rake this hemp seed after me.

The shadowy shape of the future husband would appear and rake the hemp seed. If you don’t fancy wandering about at a crossroads at midnight, a simpler but more uncomfortable method of finding a mate was to place a blade bone from a shoulder of mutton under your pillow – but first bore nine holes in it. The number three was regarded as a magical number and nine, three times three, was particularly powerful and ensured that you would dream of your future spouse.

One custom that might well have been practised in Bluestone’s Newton North church before it fell into ruin was to light a candle to foretell the future. As darkness fell on All Hallows Eve, people would gather at their parish church bearing candles and these would be lit at an appointed hour. If they burned with a clear, steady light, happiness and wealth were guaranteed in the coming year. If the flame flickered and dimmed there would be trouble and misfortune. Worst of all, if the candle quickly went out, death would follow. Even the way in which different parts of the candle burned could be prophetic, foretelling what would happen in the various months of the year. When all the candles had burned down and gone out everyone left the church and walked round it several times before setting off home in silence.

Another ancient custom was known in south Pembrokeshire as sowling. Widespread in Wales, it may have had its origin in the honouring of the dead. Small cakes or biscuits were made and these once may have been offered in memory of relatives who had passed on. It was a way not only of remembering them but also of involving them in the continued life and well-being of the family and community. Another explanation is that the cakes were gifts offered to the priests of a parish so that they would pray for the release of the souls of friends and family from purgatory. Prayers might also be offered to God for a blessing on next year’s crop of wheat. Sometimes the cakes were heavily salted in the belief that salt as a purifying agent kept away evil spirits.

Over the years the soul cakes, as they were known, became more edible and were offered to the poor or children of a parish. In some areas they were filled with raisins and fruit or were replaced by bread, cheese and apples. Just in case you’d like to mark the occasion of Halloween with something tasty, here’s a recipe for soul cakes:

2oz (50g) butter, 2oz (50g) sugar, 2oz (50g) self-raising flour, 1 egg, 1 teaspoon of chopped cherries or nuts, raisins, sultanas, currants – whatever takes your fancy, flavouring to taste – maybe cocoa, coconut, caraway seeds – the choice is yours

Cream the butter and sugar together, add beaten egg and a little milk if the resulting mixture is too stiff. Add filling and flavouring. Portion out into bun cases and cook on a baking tray in a fairly hot oven (400F/200C) until golden brown.

Categories:History

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