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:

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.


  1. Thanks for inviting me along today, Hallie et al, it was fun to think about what it is to miss something - even when you ARE that something! Odd. Whenever I'm in Wales (at least once a year, if not more often) I race about visiting favourite places, and (as you can tell from the post) feasting on delicacies unique to my homeland. I know Thanksgiving menus are being planned across the USA right now - and I bet some dishes will be on the table because they "must" be there. I wonder how many of those recipes have been handed down from past generations or brought from places other than where they'll be eaten next week.

  2. Cathy, I chuckled at the tradition of the groom chasing the bride around the village and I pondered why it had to be a young, dark-haired man to be the first to enter the house in the new year. I’m looking forward to reading “The Case of the Missing Morris Dancer” . . . .

    You're right, Cathy, about the traditional things families enjoy at Thanksgiving. There are many dishes on our table each year that are simply necessary for the celebration of the day. Somehow, there's a great deal of comfort in that . . . .

  3. Welcome, Cathy. We've run into each other at conferences but I haven't gotten to your books yet - will now remedy that ASAP!

    Like Hallie, I'm a Californian transplanted to the east coast, and it's hard to bring the big sunny skies, tall mountains, and gorgeous beaches with me. For me the "culture" I try to pass along to my children is family culture. Quirky ways my wonderful father did things, a grandfather my sons never got to meet. My mother's cookie recipes and beautiful quilts (and yes, turkey stuffing recipe). Stories of camping in the Sierras. That kind of thing.

  4. Cathy, we're so happy to have you here! And you're right, Thanksgiving is a time for traditions, whatever yours are. My mother always put out dishes of whole nuts (with nutcrackers) and figs and dates. I miss real good figs and dates which are so much easier to find in California. Here on the east coast they're likely to be shriveled an dried out. NOT a treeat unless you're looking to pull out a filing.

    Cathy, are Welshcakes akin to what we call pancakes (batter cooked in a sklllet) or what we can an English Muffin or maybe a scone? Going now to look up a recipe because they look delicious.

  5. Oh Cathy, that is a lovely essay. I have to say I'm homesick for the feeling that the things I love about America and feel passionately about will be safe in our new world order...

    But more concretely, my mother did not love to cook, though we had tons of decorated sugar cookies at Christmas. But one of the traditions we still hew to even as adults is Christmas stockings. I suggested to our grown kids a couple years ago that we might want to dispense with this. A great cry arose and the tradition continues...

    Your series sounds delightful!

  6. Cathy, thank you so much for the pocket education on Wales. It sounds like a delightful country, I always knew it was rich in tradition.

    Part of my heritage was stolen from me by my first husband. I had two tiny Christmas ornaments that my grandparents had brought from Germany when they came. The ornaments, according to family tradition, were old when they arrived at the turn of the century. A gnome and a Santa, blown glass. My ex refused to return them. The tradition I can pass on is cookies. Lots and lots of Christmas cookies, and the tradition that the youngest in the house puts the topper on the tree.

  7. Croeso, Cathy! Those Welshcakes look so good. I may have to bake some today. It's sad that so many traditions have gone. Some of the things I wrote about in the Constable Evans series don't happen any more-- the funny nicknames like Evans-the-Meat.

    I certainly know that Hiraeth but it's more for a time than a place. And I don't miss the rain!

  8. Fairies. When I was a little girl, I would sit in the yard and search beneath the blades of grass for fairies. The popularity of "fairy houses" has helped me to share this with my grand daughters, and we have had lots of fun creating our own.

    I visited Wales once -- just took the train to Cardiff. The daughter I was traveling with got sick with tonsillitis, so we got to visit the National Health clinic, but I did get some time drinking in the Welsh culture, language.

    Thanks for this post -- I'll be checking out these books.

  9. Hi Cathy! Greatly enjoyed The Case of the Missing Morris Dancer--now will have to look for more. I'm with Rhys--there's a time I miss--the place still exists, but it will never be the same without my grandparents' welcoming arms and smiles and all the family coming 'home' to visit. The traditions we keep at the holidays don't involve specific treats--or even cherished recipes--but there shall be plenty of food and a festive table and room for family and friends and the stranger who comes to the door, hat in hand.

    And Kait, what meanness of spirit....


  10. Oh, Cathy, love your books! As you well know. An I'd love to go to Wales--it seems so magical. Is Brigadoon is Wales? (Only here could one ask such a question...)

    Love the idea of passing along Indiana, where I grew up, we had better corn. SO funny to think of! But I worry my grandsons will not know our I always play the Beatles when they're here. Yes, The Beatles are ours, right?

    Thansgiving traditions? We'll talk more about those next week!

  11. Hello, Cathy, dear! It was so much fun seeing you in NOLA, and I am still grateful to you for keeping charge of that ridiculously heavy bag all night. Thank you again.

    I've gotten all hiraeth just reading your essay. Food. It's all about the tastes, and smells, and sights, isn't it? At our family Thanksgiving this week the touchstone food will be different for each family member: my brother will have half of a plateful of mashed potatoes, two of my daughters will eat pumpkin pie until they turn orange, and I will enjoy the sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce. Heaven help me, my daughters all love Stovetop stuffing, which I detest even the idea of. This year each of them is making their own favorite, which should be fun.

    Your books are in the pile, awaiting a time when I can binge read them. Now that the gardening is just about finished for the year, I really look forward to curling up and heading to Cathy Ace World.

  12. Fairies! What a nice memory, Denise Ann. When we were in Iceland it was all about elves. Piles of rocks go undisturbed for centuries because an elf resides there.

  13. Hi Cathy- I understand your feeling of home sickness...when I worked and lived in NYC for 3 years, I loved being there..but the minute the plane flew over "my land"(Ohio)..I felt like I was HOME.......the dirt, stays with you, no matter where you are....
    My family is a mix of Scot and grandparents were the ones that began the passing down of we are an eclectic mix of customs..and not all are so different...But I see, the lose of them, thru generations....many of my cousins did not pass anything along..doesn't take long...for things to be lost...

  14. What's fun is to see what new traditions you inadvertently started. My daughter introduced new one last year with jelly donuts Christmas morning. I've been looking forward to a repeat all year. Squash soup to start Thanksgiving dinner is another new one. And I make potato pancakes at Chanukah though my mother did not cook and my grandmother was a dreadful cook.

  15. Hello folks - lots of comments to reply to....

    Yes, that chasing the bride about is a horrid idea, Joan, though true - eek!

    Hello again Edith - I never knew either of my grandfathers (one was a baker, one a coal miner, both dead before they were fifty) and my parents' memories of them were hazy too (my father's dad died when he was only five, my mum's when she was thirteen) and I often wonder what I might have learned from them.

    Welsh cakes, Hallie? I wrote a piece for Mystery Lovers Kitchen a while ago with a recipe and full prep and cooking instructions for these treats. Each Welsh woman has her own recipe - passed down through generations, so it might differ from the one Rhys uses, but you can find it here:

    They're cooked on a griddle, but are more like a flat scone than a pancake.

    Lucy/Roberta - ah yes, the things we do to keep the peace and made everyone as happy as possible. My husband and I began a new tradition 15 years ago and we promised each other we'd stick to, just for us...champagne with Christmas Day breakfast - so not a tough one to want to follow ;-)

    Oh Kait - you poor thing...and watch out for those wriggly little ones!

    Maybe my friends are oddities, Rhys, but I'm pleased to say the traditions of naming people in that typically Welsh way still lives in many places, and within circles. So many people share common names, it's still critical. Musician friends of mine regularly refer to Gwyn the trombone vs Gwyn the fiddle, or Huw double bass vs Huw flute. It's how we all talk about people, and differentiate between them.

    Denise Ann - a favourite memory with my maternal grandmother is that she had one of the Flower Fairy illustrated books at her house that i was able to look at, then read, when I visited, so I, too, connect grandmothers and fairies :-)

    FChurch - such generosity of spirit must mean lots of leftovers - YUM!

    Hank - thanks for your kind words...they put your lovely blurb on the front cover of the book - I am so chuffed :-) (and, Brigadoon is in Scotland...though there are probably places like it in remote valleys in Wales too!).

    Hi Karen - oh, you were most welcome :-) Our garden needs just a bit more attention - our mild weather has lingered here on the wet West coast, but today we'll pull pots of tender plants under cover, though the hydrangeas are still in full leaf and, in some cases, the blooms haven't even shriveled yet, so they look weirdly lovely, for November. But then? Winter-time blanket fort and TBR pile - you;re right :-)

    I like the idea of elves under piles of rocks, Hallie - and hope to get to Iceland one day to check it out for myself.

    SueAnn - "the dirt stays with you" is a great phrase!

  16. Hi Cathy! Welcome to JRW.

    We met briefly at Malice when you talked to us about your books for a minute. You and other authors moved from table to table full of fans like me to talk about books. It was funny because you look like a friend's Mom, though as far as we know she is Not Welsh nor British. Perhaps some German?

    I visited Wales once and loved it! Coming from California, which was undergoing an awful drought that year, it was so wonderful to see rain! in Wales, I was studying abroad and our class travelled to Wales for the day. Yes, on a rainy day :-) We visited three castles and Titern ? Abbey. I am not sure how to spell Titern Abbey. We visited Chepstow, Raglan and Goodrich, which were close to the River Wye.

    When I came home, I mentioned how surprised I was that Wales had a lot of green land with trees. Someone mentioned a movie called "How Green Was My Valley".

    I added your books to my TBR list.


  17. Oh, Lucy, we have the Christmas stockings tradition, too . . . and everyone gets a special ornament each year.

    As far as food is concerned, the turkey and trimmings, homemade cranberry relish, and the requisite pies [mince and pumpkin] fill the Thanksgiving table, but it's a rib roast and plum pudding for Christmas.
    And always, always made-from-scratch cinnamon rolls [from my mom's recipe] for breakfast on Christmas morning . . . .

  18. I always enjoy encountering both Cathy and Hallie at the Surrey Conference. It was a great experience again this fall, wasn't it, ladies?

    My paternal grandparents brought various memories with them from Ireland and England, but few real traditions. Storytelling and family sing-a-longs are what I most associate with them.

    One tradition for my own household involves gathering in the kitchen to make Christmas fruit cakes on Remembrance Day afternoon. We dig out the Christmas music, and everyone must take a turn stirring the cake batter whether or not they're big fans of actually eating the finished product. Another tradition is setting up the creche at the start of Advent, and, later, unpacking family heirloom decorations during the tree decorating. Many are ornaments acquired from parents and grandparents and evoke lots of good memories of family gatherings at Christmas time.

  19. Hi Cathy! I know the hiraeth (can you pronounce for us?) so well, but for me, a Texan, it has always been about England. I just came home from a month in the UK and am already homesick for all the little odds and ends of English life. That said, I do miss Texas and my family roots and customs when I'm away.

    I lived at one time in Chester, a stone's throw from North Wales, but I don't know Wales as well as I'd like. I'm going to start your books right now!

    Oh, and they do first-footing in Scotland, too!

    As for my family's traditions, most of them seem to center around food:-) But there are others. Last night we had our first fire of the season in the fireplace, always much looked forward to. There will be all the usual family Thanksgiving stuff, and then the first weekend in December we put up our fresh Christmas tree.

    And yes to champagne on Christmas morning, Hallie! My daughter and started that one!

  20. Sometimes I feel hiraeth for Upstate New York. It's not that Maine is so different, and at this point, I've lived here far longer than I ever lived in New York, but when I drive over the Berkshire Mountains and into NY, there's always a part of me inside singing, "I'm home!"

    It feels like American traditions are around events: 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Labor Day. I'll agree with Roberta/Lucy- our real traditions are "Nothing is impossible" and "I have the right to make my voice heard" and "It doesn't matter where you went to school or how much money you have; I'm just as good as you, bub."

  21. I've done the opposite of Edith and Hallie: I'm a New Englander transplanted to the west coast. In many ways, Seattle is similar to Boston. Both have the sea, great restaurants, tech, and terrific hospitals, but I definitely miss certain Boston things on a regular basis. I miss plump juicy fried clams, the stomachs not just the necks, which is all they serve in Seattle. Sounds gross, I know, but it's a delicious difference. I miss the aggressive driving, not because I like aggression, but because you can anticipate it. I'm never quite sure what the meandering WA state drivers are going to do, but I know exactly what the Boston drivers are up to! I miss the no bs attitude, and the willingness to dive in and do something, rather than debate endlessly. Don't get me wrong, I love Seattle, but I fear the populace will spend so much time debating our traffic/road issues that we'll slide into Puget Sound before we make any decisions.

    And I missed baked stuff shrimp, but luckily, my mum makes it for Christmas. Yum!

  22. Hi again folks....

    Diana - WOW, what a memory, because I know you're assailed by dozens of authors during the Malice Go Round at Malice Domestic (but it's such fun!). Tintern Abbey is the correct spelling - it's close to the border near the River Severn....lovely place with a unique atmosphere. And the rain? Oh yes...we Welsh prove that people don't rust :-)

    Joan - mince pies are my favourite at Christmas...I'll be making about 100 of them mid-December, as gifts ;-)

    Carol - lovely to see you, as always, and what delightful traditions you are keeping alive :-)

    Deborah - the pronunciation for hiraeth is "he" then say the word "rye" then "th" end...he-rye-th

    Julia - I recognize that "I'm home" feeling...I get it when I drive across the Severn Bridge and see the Croeso (Welcome) sign :-)

    Ingrid - you'll know at least I'm not missing the rain of Wales living here, as I do, in the Pacific Northwest ;-)

  23. Cathy, you and Rhys are responsible for my fascination with Wales. I love your posts on Wales and the Welsh language, and The Case of the Dotty Dowager was such a great read. I have The Case of the Missing Morris Dancer on my Christmas list of books I will buy myself. And, I went ahead and added the first Cait Morgan book to my Kindle a few minutes ago. Looks like I might be adding that series to my winter series catch-up list.

    I have several things on my wish list for the next Bouchercon. One of them is to have a sit-down with you and just listen to you talk. I corner Catriona McPherson whenever I can to hear her Scottish accent. Ah, to have a voice that everyone wants to hear. So glad you stopped by the Reds today, Cathy.

    Oh, traditions or parts of culture one brings to a new place. When I got married, I moved from one end of the state of Kentucky to the other, and even though it's the same state, there are differences. Something specific to my hometown area of Maysville, KY is the transparent pie or transparent puddings (little pies, not really puddings). Another food item is the country ham of my youth, as not all country hams are created equal. Sweet tea didn't make the cut; I've gotten used to unsweet tea. Using the work boot for trunk on a car is something I brought with me, too, but I probably use trunk more now, although I'm rather sentimental about "boot."

  24. Hi Kathy - thanks for your kind words....i have been accused of being responsible for things much worse than giving someone an interest in Wales ;-) So pleased you enjoyed meeting Althea Twyst and the women of the WISE Enquiries Agency, and thanks for putting The Case of the Missing Morris Dancer on your list - chuffed! It's hard for me to believe the third book will be out in the UK later this month - how time flies. By the way, if you like my accent that much, I can tell you I passed the audition to record the first two Cait Morgan Mysteries for Audible myself... so you can listen to me gab on for about twenty hours, should you so choose ;-)

    y the way - why are they called "transparent" pies? And boots (vs trunks) RULE in my home...but my husband is Welsh too, so I suppose they would!

  25. Oh, Ingrid. When I go home to Indiana, people stop for yellow lights. Really?
    It's all I can do not to yell: GO GO GO! That's the Boston influence.

  26. You are so right, Hank! Don't people know that yellow means speed up!!