The challenge for all authors of historical fiction is to make the past accessible to modern readers without losing the spark that makes the story historical. Readers seek out historical fiction for many reasons, which must include a desire to learn about the past in a less dry manner than nonfiction, and to lose themselves in another time and place. Thus, an authentic setting—the where, the when, and the why of historical peoples—can make or break a story.
The latest book in my Gareth and Gwen medieval mysteries, The Fallen Princess, is set during the Welsh harvest festival of Calan Gaeaf, and its companion holy day, Nos Galan Gaeaf, which the modern world knows as Halloween.
While November 1 is known today to the Catholic Church as All Saint’s Day, within Celtic tradition, it was always celebrated as the first day of winter. The Church took this pagan tradition (as it did with many others) and made it a holy day. During the medieval period, Calan Gaeaf was the Welsh harvest festival. The night before, Nos Galan Gaeaf, was the day when the veil between the human world and the world of the spirits thinned.
“The harvest had been gathered in, excess livestock had been culled or killed off and put into storage for the coming year. It was very much a communal festivity, a time for celebration and enjoyment. Everyone, from the farmer to the lowest cow hand, had participated in growing crops and keeping the animals and now they would celebrate together.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/wales/posts/halloween_nos_galan_gaeaf
Nos Galan Gaeaf, in turn, was all about protecting the community from the dead and easing their progress to the next world. Its customs included putting candles inside turnips (pumpkins are New World foods and thus not available in medieval Wales) to light the way for the dead, leaving out food on one’s stoop to appease the dead, and sharing food with revelers who would move from house to house in a medieval version of trick-or-treating.
My hope in choosing this setting for The Fallen Princess, is to provide an authentic background for the mystery, drawing the reader into what is familiar—in this case, Halloween–without losing sight of what isn’t familiar, Nos Galan Gaeaf.
It’s up to you, the reader, to see if I succeeded.
Sarah Woodbury, January 27, 2014