Halloween Customs in Pembrokeshire

By Terry John Pumpkins

The name October actually comes from the Latin word octo, meaning eight. In the old Roman calendar, October was originally the eighth month, only becoming the tenth month when the Romans reformed their calendar. The Anglo-Saxons knew it as Wyn Monath, as it was traditionally the season of wine making.

Many hiring fairs and cattle markets were held in October. The picking of blackberries and nuts drew to a close and the oyster gathering season also came to an end.

Pembrokeshire oysters were in the past regarded as a great delicacy and were sent off to London and the larger cities for sale in the markets and restaurants. The oyster beds of Caldey Island and in the Cleddau River near Lawrenny were especially famous for their succulent shellfish.

October was also the season when superstitions came to the fore, as the days grew shorter and the nights lengthened. Spells were cast and potions were brewed in order to learn what the future held. Much of this was to do with the forecasting of who was to marry in the coming year and the identity of the future spouse.

Strange Customs

One of the strangest of all the customs practiced in Pembrokeshire took place each year in October. If you visited Tenby on the late afternoon of 24th October, you would have noticed the figure of a man hanging from the steeple of St Mary‘s Church. This was not some gruesome and highly visible form of execution. Closer examination would have revealed that the figure was in fact an effigy made of sacking or canvas stuffed with padding and dressed in ragged items of clothing.

The figure represented St Crispin, who was commemorated on 25th October. Early on that morning the figure was taken down and paraded around the town. As it processed through the streets, verses and rhymes were shouted aloud, which were supposed to be the Last Will and Testament of the saint.

When the procession came to an end, all the clothing was removed from the effigy and was distributed to the shoemakers of the town, as St Crispin and St Crispinian, who were brothers, were the patron saints of cobblers. When this had been done the figure was thrown about and dragged from place to place until the stuffing fell out; even that was tossed into the air until it fell apart and blew away on the wind.

Nobody now remembers why this ritual took place or why poor St Crispin should have been dangled from the church steeple. It was one of the many strange customs that were practised across Pembrokeshire and indeed all of England and Wales during the month of October. Some of these still take place.

The Evil Eye

The “evil eye” was especially more potent during the winter months and there was much gossiping about the best ways of warding off the malice of a witch. A tried and tested Pembrokeshire method was to tie a red thread or ribbon around one’s wrist. Witches were said to fear the colour red as it reminded them of the fires of Hell, to which they were doomed.

Those who had the ability to curse others by means of the evil eye were thought to have made a pact with the Devil. When their contract with him was at an end, usually when their deaths occurred, their souls were snatched away and cast into Hell, leaving behind a small of sulphur. As the nights grew colder and darker, it was easy for folks huddled around their fires to believe stories of coffins that, when opened, were found to contain only a heap of stones - proof that a vampire had been at work.

As well as the colour red, fire was thought to be a good way of warding off harm and ensuring health over the coming winter, especially for animals. Pigs were passed through two adjacent fires to ensure that they were protected from the powers of evil. Sprigs of holly were placed over the door, windows and chimneys of houses to prevent the entry of witches and spirits.

All Hallows Eve

On All Hallows Eve, 31st October, bonfires blazed in towns and villages across the land. This was the old Celtic Festival of Samhain, one of the four “spirit nights” of the year and the most powerful of them all. Ghosts and demons walked abroad and the fires helped to hold them at bay. People believed that the souls of their dead relatives returned to visit them, so they left food upon the table and unlocked their doors before retiring to bed. Church bells were rung to guide returning souls to their home communities.

One of the more pleasant customs was the baking of Halloween cakes, which were shared as people gathered around the great fires that were lit on that night. The recipe is given below.

Halloween Cake Recipe

  • 2oz (50g) butter
  • 2oz (50g) sugar
  • 2oz (50g) self raising flower
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon filling - chopped glace cherries, chopped nuts, raisins, sultanas, currants - and flavouring to taste - coffee or cocoa, coconut or caraway seeds -the choice of  these particular ingredients is yours.
  • Cream the butter and sugar together.
  • Add beaten egg, flour and a little milk if too stiff.
  • Add the remaining ingredients.
  • Place portions into bun cases.
  • Cook on a baking tray in a fairly hot oven - 400F/200C until golden brown.

Categories:Autumn, History


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