Folklore: 10 things you didn’t know about Halloween

What is the history of Halloween and when was it first celebrated? Why do we trick or treat? Why do we carve pumpkins? 

Dr David Clarke of the Centre for Contemporary Legend, Sheffield Hallam University, investigates the origins of this eerie autumn festival.

Pixabay: Andreas Lischka

(1) Most people believe 31 October is an ancient pagan festival associated with the supernatural. But in fact Hallowtide was created in the 9th century AD by christians to commemorate their martyrs and saints. However, in medieval Britain ‘Halloween’ was the eve of the Catholic festival of All Saints or All-Hallows (from Old English ‘Holy Man’) on 1 November. This was followed by the feast of All Souls on 2 November.

(2) There is no evidence the pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated a festival on 1 November, but the Venerable Bede says the month was known as Blod-monath (blood month), when surplus livestock were slaughtered and offered as sacrifices. The truth is there is no written evidence that 31 October was linked to the supernatural in England before the 19th century.

(3) In pre-Christian Ireland 1 November was known as Samhain (summer’e end). This date marked the onset of winter in Gaelic-speaking areas of Britain. It was also the end of the pastoral farming year when cattle were slaughtered and tribal gatherings such as the Feast of Tara were held. In the 19th century the anthropologist Sir James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough (1890) popularised the idea of Samhain as an ancient Celtic festival of the dead when pagan religious ceremonies were held.

(4) The Catholic tradition of offering prayers to the dead, the ringing of church bells and lighting of candles and torches on the Feast of All Saints (1 November) provides the link with the spirit world. In medieval times prayers were said for souls trapped in purgatory. This was believed to be a sort of halfway house on the road to heaven and their ghosts could return to Earth to ask relatives for assistance in the journey.

In Mexico Dia de Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is a three-day festival that runs from 31 October-2 November and combines Catholic and pagan traditions. An account of the 2019 festival published by The Guardian discusses how the festival has evolved from an intimate family occasion when Mexicans remember loved ones who have died into a gigantic public parade, influenced by the opening scene in the 2015 James Bond/007 movie Spectre.

The Day of the Dead parade, credit: Pixabay (Darvin Santos)

(5) Popular Halloween customs in England included ‘souling’ where groups of adults and children wearing costumes visited big houses to sing and collect money and food. Souling was common in parts of Cheshire, Shropshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire on 1 and 2 November. In parts of northern England special cakes were baked and left in churchyards as offerings to the dead.

(6) Until the 19th century bonfires were lit on Halloween in parts of northern England and Derbyshire. Some folklorists believe the enduring popularity of Guy Fawkes bonfires on 5 November may be a memory of an older fire festival, but there is a lack of written evidence for these in England until the late 17th century.

(7) Love divination customs associated with Halloween spread to England from Scotland as a result of the popularity of the Robert Burn poem Halloween in Victorian times. The poem was first published in 1786. One love divination mentioned by Burns includes placing hazelnuts in the fire, naming one for yourself and the other for your partner. If they burn gently and then go out this indicated a long and harmonious life together; if they coughed and spluttered or exploded this indicated problems ahead. Apples were also used for divination purposes with the skin thrown over the shoulder or the fruit floated in water or hung upon strings, to be seized by the teeth of the players.

(8) The tradition of carving a face on a turnip or swede (and more recently pumpkin) and using these as lanterns also seems to be a relatively modern tradition. On the last Thursday in October the children in the Somerset village of Hinton St George carry lanterns made of mangel-wurzles, the light shining through a design etched on the skin. They are carried around the streets as the children chant: ‘It’s Punky Night tonight, It’s Punky Night tonight, Give us a candle, give us a light, It’s Punky Night tonight.’

Copyright David Clarke

(9) Much of the modern supernatural lore surrounding Halloween was invented as recently as the 19th century. Scots and Irish settlers carried a Mischief Night (4 November) visiting custom to North America where it became known as ‘Trick or Treat’. Until the revival of interest in Halloween during the 1970s this American tradition was largely unknown in England. The importation of ‘Trick or Treat’ into parts of England during the 1980s was helped by scenes in American TV programmes and the children’s film E.T.

(10) The idea of Halloween as a festival of supernatural evil forces is entirely a modern invention. Urban legends about razor blades in apples and cyanide in sweets, hauntings by restless spirits and the use of 31 October as the date of evil or inauspicious events in horror films reflect modern fears and terrors. Every year Halloween provokes controversy and divides opinions.  Most people see it as just as a bit of harmless fun. Modern witches claim 31 October marks an ancient pagan festival and some evangelical christians prefer to believe it is celebration of dangerous occult forces. This explains why folklorist Steve Roud calls it ‘the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented day in the festival year’.

Originally published in BBC History Extra, October 2014.

Link to review of Lisa Morton’s book Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween (2019) from The Guardian.

Copyright 2019 : Centre for Contemporary Legend, Sheffield Hallam University


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