Traditionally, in Wales, the 1st of November was regarded as the start of winter: Calan Gaeaf. Nos Galan Gaeaf, the preceding night is an ‘Ysbrydnos’ when spirits are abroad. People avoid churchyards, stiles, and crossroads, since spirits are thought to gather there.
This ancient tradition was found across the UK & survives in various forms. Until recently (when commercial marketing processes changed habits) turnips were hollowed to make candle-lit masks, ‘guisers’ roamed the streets creating a variety of chaos, ‘Mischief Night’ (4th November) had & has adolescents creating, at times, some considerable damage to property
Romantics like to call it ‘pagan’ or use the invented term ‘celtic’ as a means of giving it ancient depth. It has no need of either. It is naturally ‘elemental’. We all face death.
In the northern hemisphere the time of year works its own magic in any age – darkness is increasing, the land seems to be dying & these natural occurrences still work deep inside humans.
The need to remember and celebrate remains strong. Fears created by the return of the dank, dark & gloom of winter, had people engage in acts of ‘divination’ – which included ‘apple-bobbing’.
The long-established tradition of apple-bobbing has, inevitably, received criticism from Health and safety ‘experts’:
In recent times (for example in the 1980s at Chirbury on the Shropshire -Welsh Border) beliefs remained that at midnight on 31st October if in or near the Parish Church, one could hear the names of all who will die during the year.
In many countries that maintain Catholic traditions All Saints Day is still a time for remembering mortality & graves & cemeteries are attended to.
“Every year on November 1, Todos Los Santos (“All Saints’ Day”), millions of Filipinos gather at the cemeteries to honor their dead beloved family and friends. Many actually go to the cemeteries the night before and camp out next to the graves. So the night is spent on singing karaoke, playing cards, drinking, and even dancing! Next to Christmas and Good Friday, Todos Los Santos is the biggest holiday of all.”
One ancient tradition associated with the Christian Festival days of All Saints’ and All Souls’ was that of begging. Of asking for charity in remembrance of the souls of the departed & as a means of speeding them through purgatory.
In UK the traditions associated with feast days became downgraded following the Protestant Reformation. However some survived and other traditions with appealing elements were created (such as 5th November with its bonfires, fireworks & ‘penny for the guy’ traditions). The older traditions continued, almost unnoticed, in certain areas of the north and west of Britain.
One such surviving tradition was that of begging for ‘Soul Cakes’.
On 1st & 2nd November 2013 a small group, celebrating the season, travelled on foot through some of the smaller parishes on the Welsh – English Border. A two day journey covering more than 40 kms.
They were damp pilgrims, linking communities, singing (not always tunefully) in each parish, in return for which they were provided with a seasonal food.
Through their efforts became