Saturday, November 19, 2016
Cathy Ace's Welsh traditions
HALLIE EPHRON: Today it gives me great pleasure to welcome Cathy Ace, Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries & The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries, and chair of Crime Writers of Canada. Cathy and I cross paths at the wonderful Surrey Writers Conference.
Talk to Cathy and you hear pure Wales. And yet, she's living in Canada... and sometimes writes about Las Vegas. But she'll always have Wales in her bones...
CATHY ACE: I’m a transplant; born and raised in Wales, I didn’t migrate to Canada until I was forty years old. I will always be Welsh (as will my accent), while my new growth will be here, in my new home. I’ve chosen, within my two series of books, to use the fact I’m Welsh to write about Wales and being Welsh with a veracity I hope is clear on the page. What I’ve learned from readers is they like to find out about old Welsh traditions, and that’s made me look at traditions I miss, and try to continue, with fresh eyes.
I feel terribly “homesick” for Wales; I don’t mean the sort of “homesick” a person feels (as discussed here a few weeks ago) when on an extended trip, but the sort of “homesick” one feels for a place and culture that’s “you” - with which you are totally connected, but which isn’t a part of your daily reality anymore - that makes you feel physically and emotionally bereft. The Welsh even have a word for this feeling; hiraeth doesn’t have a direct translation into English (or any other language, as far as I know) but it’s used to refer to the longing for your homeland and culture that screams within every fiber of your body all the time, even though you, yourself, are a representation of the very culture you’re missing. And it’s so tempting to think the grass really was greener there, back then.
The Welsh have a host of “traditions”, many of which have become arcane within even my own lifetime: about fifty years ago at New Year’s Eve parties, in order to ensure good luck for the year ahead, a young, dark-haired men was sought out, handed a lump of coal – which everyone had handy for their coal fires – and shut out on the street, having to knock to gain entry and thus become the first person to enter the house in the year…“first-footing” as it was known; chimney sweeps (necessary due to the aforementioned coal fires) were invited to many weddings at which I sang in the church choir, to ensure good fortune for the couple…and so on.
The coal fires have gone now, as have the lumps of readily-available coal, and the idea of becoming a chimney sweep doesn’t occur to any pimply youths considering a career plan…but some traditions continue, and are even seeing a revival. Many of these are connected with romance and weddings, a subject at the center of The Case of the Missing Morris Dancer, the second in my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries.
For example, living myrtle is still a part of many Welsh bridal bouquets and is planted in the garden of the couple’s new home for good fortune and fertility, and many Welsh engagements take place on January 25th, St Dynwyn’s Day…a tragic female saint whose story makes her the patron saint of lovers in Wales, in place of St Valentine.
Fortunately, the tradition of the bride being chased around the village by the groom, who then has the right to enter the house where she’s being “hidden” and take her off to be married has gone by the wayside…though even this tradition is discussed as a “possibility” in my book.
All cultures have ancient traditions, such as those listed above, that have passed into lore maybe over the past few decades, or during the centuries before. I’ll be honest, I don’t miss those traditions very much – though I do write about them – and I haven’t brought them with me to my new country.
No, what makes me feel hiraeth are the traditions I developed for myself, with my family, over decades of my life, and are not things I can possibly bring with me.
I miss being able to walk through Swansea market and smell the Welshcakes baking, see the glistening mounds of stewed seaweed known as laverbread, or treating myself to a little cup of pepper and vinegar-seasoned cockles.
I long for the wind that whips across the magnificent rock formation known as Worm’s Head in Rhossili, the smell of the sea in the air as I walk out of Swansea’s main library which is all but on the beach, or the chance to indulge in a chocolate sundae at Joe’s ice cream parlor in The Mumbles – a small “village” on the coast – whenever I want.
I miss the people; the conversations overheard in the bus, on the street, in the pub. The pulse of Welsh life.
Nowadays I bake Welshcakes for the grandchildren, and, when they’re old enough, I’ll get them to read the Welsh mythological Mabinogion tales and the English-language poetry of Dylan Thomas. I’ll show them photos of stone circles that have been in place for thousands of years in Welsh meadows, and the more recent ones erected wherever a National Eisteddfod is held. I’ll tell them about naughty sprites called bwcas, that Roald Dahl was born in Wales, and that no parent ever wanted their child to work in a coal mine. Traditions can be ancient, or those we make for ourselves…
You can find out more about Cathy Ace and both her Cait Morgan Mysteries and WISE Enquiries here: http://cathyace.com/
HALLIE: So here's Cathy question to you: whether you’re a transplanted person or not, what will you pass to the next generations from your own cultural heritage…and why? Seems particularly appropriate as we head into the holidays.