Many of the seasonal customs recorded in rural communities have their roots in stories and folklore well established for generations before they took the shapes identified in those recording them. Some may go back to even older observances with mythological origins.
The coming of winter, or Calan Gaeaf, is resonant with tales and images that reflect deeply embedded responses to the shortening days and the coming of the longer, darker, nights. We are all familiar with the modern practices of ‘trick or treat’ at ‘Hallowe’en’ and the associated paraphernalia of ghoul masks and scary images. Older customs were less eager to engage so familiarly with the darker denizens of the night, or at least preferred to do so with more respect than is shown by modern revellers. There was, however, a custom of calling at houses asking for food on behalf of the ‘messengers of the dead’. No tricks here but some bread, cheese and apples were a welcome treat.
Apparently benign customs such as apple bobbing provided the amusement of watching people trying to eat apples floating in tubs of water or dangling from strings without using their hands. Bonfires were lit and while they burned food could be cooked or nuts thrown into the flames for the purposes of making predictions from the way they burned. But as the fires burned low and gradually went out, more serious divinations might be attempted from the ashes as the dark closed in.
It was on the way home from such bonfire events that the sort of spirits represented by the modern ghoul masks might be encountered. But they were to be avoided rather than imitated. On such a night the Cwn Annwn might be encountered. These are familiar to readers of the Mabinogi stories as the red-eared hounds of the otherworld king Arawn. But their appearance on the folklore tradition is often much more sinister. They are variously described, but their red ears often have an eerie glow and they sometimes also have fire-red eyes. Marie Trevelyan describes them as follows:
Sometimes they travelled in weird packs alone, but frequently they were guided by their master. He is described as a dark, almost black, gigantic figure, with a horn slung around his swarthy neck, and a long hunting-pole at his back….. sometimes with a creature half wolf / half dog with him. There too is the Brenin Llwyd or Grey King with the Cŵn Wybyr, or Dogs of the Sky, in his court of mist.
Here, although he is not named, is a memory of Gwyn ap Nudd in different guises slipping through the mist between the worlds, his hounds held in check as it is said in the medieval Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen that he ‘contains the essence of the devils of Annwn in him, lest this world be destroyed’. Such devils are not to be held up as figures of fun, but treated with respect, as they surely would have been by those coming home from the Calan Gaeaf bonfires.
Another creature they might have feared is the Hwch Ddu Gwta (Black Short-tailed Sow), an otherworld pig who it was said emerged from the bonfire ash and then waited at stiles for those walking home late from the festivities. She is remembered in this old Welsh nursery rhyme:
Hwch Ddu Gwta
Ar bob camfa
Yn nyddu a cardio
Bob Nos Glangaea
Adre, adre, am y cynta
Hwch Dddu Gwta gipio’r ola.
Black short-tailed sow
On every stile
Spinning and weaving
On Calan Gaeaf night
Get home quick, be the first
The Hwch Ddu Gwta gets the last.
Who spins and weaves by stiles on such a night? Perhaps the ‘Ladi Wen’ (White Lady) another spirit who was said to be abroad at Calan Gaeaf, and who might she be but Ceridwen, mother of Afagddu (‘Deep Dark’), keeper of the cauldron from which Taliesin gained inspiration and acknowledged by the early medieval Welsh bards as the source of their awen. But she is perilous. Like the Cailleach of Irish and Scottish tradition she is the wise crone but also the Hag of Winter, embodying the very darkness itself as winter falls. Her name is ambiguous, with the possible range of ‘crooked hag’ , ‘woman who brings fever’, ‘passionate one’. As well as the mother of Afagddu she also has a daughter Creirwy (‘living treasure’) who was ‘the fairest maiden in the world’, and whose name might might be related to Ceridwen’s own name. Here we have the hag who becomes a young woman when kissed by a chosen suitor, common in folklore and in medieval literature. So she is the mother both of darkness and of all that is fair. Her cauldron is the cauldron of unmaking, the darkness which must be embraced if rebirth is to be possible. Her withered lips that must be kissed set the seal on winter and the potential of the far-off spring. She contains all in her cauldron.
This is the parable of Calan Gaeaf, of Winterfall, of the Grey Mari (who appears later in the winter festivals as the ghostly horse’s head of the Mari Lwyd customs), of the Black Sow, of the Mother of Darkness who brings the night out of her cauldron and from which the season can be re-born if the devils of Annwn can be contained by the Lord of the Otherworld in the Kingdom of Mist; but we must bide the time for this to be so and not deny them in either trick or treat as they flit through the dark , but keep the season with them, and for them, as they pass.
Marie Trevelyan Folklore and Folk Stories of Wales (1909).
T. Gwynn Jones Welsh Folklore and Folk Custom (1930)
Trefor M Owen Welsh Folklore and Custom (National Museum of Wales, 1959)