When you see or hear the word “Hallowe’en’, what image does it conjure up for you, dear reader? Do you see children dressed as their favourite superhero, jumping with excitement as they go door to door asking for sweets? Do you see arrogant teenagers, not even bothering to dress up, going door to door expecting money, throwing eggs at your door if they don’t get it? Do you see adults dressed up per the invitation’s direction heading, booze in hand, to a Hallowe’en themed party? Do you see families in fancy dress, apple bobbing and having fun?
Or, like me, do you sit and wait expectantly at the cemetery gates, hoping – yes, hoping – that what you’ve heard is true and that the dead will rise from their graves and walk among us, unnoticed, for this one night? This would, of course, depend on whether you believe that the veil between the worlds is truly at its thinnest on All Hallows’ Eve.
Whatever your image of Hallowe’en, it’s always interesting to learn its origin; its inception; its history, and, given my pagan leanings, I thought I’d look at it from the point of view of Samhain.
In the world of witchcraft, Samhain is known as “mischief night”; a time when sprites are expected to play tricks in the name of the Horned One, who likes to loosen things up with tricks, jokes and strange occurrences on this night.
As well as being the end of the solar year, a time when nature retreats to rest, Samhain is also the Festival of the Returning Dead. The dissolution of the old year means a dissolving of all boundaries, including those between the living and the dead, enabling the dead to return and communicate with us if they so choose. For, in witchcraft, it is not accepted to “call the dead back”, but instead to allow them to return of their own free will. Calling them back is believed to be harmful to the spirit and impedes the progress between incarnations.
Samhain is the first and most important of the four quarter days in the Gaelic calendar, with similar festivals being held by the Celts two thousand years ago. It marks the end of the harvest and the start of winter and a time when the boundaries between the worlds thins, allowing the Aos Si (sprites/fairies/spirits of the dead) to pass more easily into our world.
The Aos Si were respected and feared, with people seeking protection from God to guard their homes. On Samhain, it was believed the Aos Si needed to be “appeased” to ensure that people and their livestock survived the winter. As such, offerings of food, drink and crops were left outside homes and places were also set at the dinner table, should the souls of deceased relatives wish to pay a visit.
In old Gaelic and Celtic traditions, the festivities were centred round divining the future, not dwelling in the past:
• Young ladies would carve an apple in one long strip and throw the peel over their shoulder. The peel was said to land in the shape of their future husband’s first initial.
• Young ladies would name a hazelnut for each of their suitors and then toss them into the fire. The nut which burned to ash, instead of popping, was said to be her future husband.
• Young ladies would gaze into a mirror in a darkened room. It was said that the face of their future husband would appear. If, however, a skull were to appear, then the young lady would die before she married.
• The first to be successful at apple bobbing was said to be the first down the aisle.
There were others, but the general principle seemed to be hope. The propensity for fear, horror and scaremongering on Hallowe’en came later.
Tradition also held that bonfires be set. The Celts built them to commemorate Samhain and people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. They wore costumes of animal heads and skins and used the embers from the sacred bonfire to relight those in their hearths; the belief being that it would protect themselves, and their livestock, through the cold hard winter.
So, that’s a little bit about the history of All Hallows’ Eve, but what about the traditions we are more familiar with in the twenty-first century? What about trick-or-treating, fancy dress and pumpkin lanterns – where did these come from?
In Medieval times in England, “souling” took place on All Saints’ Day. It involved poor citizens begging for food from the rich. The rich families would give them pastries, called “soul cakes”, in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the families who had helped them.
Souling progressed to “mumming”, also a Medieval practise, which involved masked people in fancy dress parading the streets and entering houses to dance and sing, in exchange for food.
Originally, mumming was seen as an impersonation of the Aos Si and people would receive offerings on behalf of these beings. It was believed that by impersonating the Aos Si, it acted as protection, disguising the wearer so they could roam freely amongst the dead; undetected. From the eighteenth century, this impersonation of malignant spirits led to pranks being played if food was not given.
Due to the darkness associated with this time of year “guisers” (people in fancy dress) carried lanterns. Traditionally, these lanterns were carved from turnips or mangel-wurzels, into grotesque faces, and contained a candle for illumination. When the tradition travelled to the USA, however, it was the native pumpkin that was used as it was deemed larger, softer and easier to carve.
These lanterns became known as “Jack-O-Lanterns”; a name taken from an Irish folk tale, in which the lantern represented a soul denied access to both heaven and hell:
‘On route home after a night’s drinking, Jack encounters the Devil and tricks him into climbing a tree. Jack etches the sign of the cross into the bark, thus trapping the Devil. Jack strikes a bargain that Satan can never claim his soul. After a life of drink, sin and mendacity, Jack is refused entry to heaven when he dies. Keeping his promise, the Devil refuses to allow him into hell, and throws a coal straight from the fires of hell at him. It was a cold night, so Jack places the coal in a hollowed out turnip to stop it from going out. Ever since, Jack and his lantern have been seen roaming, looking for a place to rest.’ (Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying by Glennys Howarth & Oliver Leaman)
Nowadays, the whole festival of Hallowe’en seems far removed from that of tradition. Gone are the spooky costumes, replaced with superheroes and famous people. Gone is the meaning of “souling” as a way to help the poor; replaced by a tradition of children gathering tooth rotting, energy enhancing sweets. Gone is the Jack-O-Lantern, replaced by smiling pumpkins, sitting on windowsills and porches, surrounded by other Hallowe’en décor.
For me, the eeriness of Hallowe’en, which I crave, has been lost. To know you can cross between worlds undetected on this night, fills me with excitement and wonder. What pleasures could be found on the other side, dear reader, should you dare to walk through the veil?
Whatever your perception of All Hallows’ Eve, just take note whilst you are out and about on this auspicious night. Whether you are trick-or-treating, dancing to Thriller, or feeling the wind in your hair as you shake the cobwebs from your broomstick, remember to look around you and observe.
Is that costume, accurate to the finest detail, just a costume and is that exquisitely applied zombie make-up, just make-up? Can you tell a costume from an outfit, make-up from rotting flesh, a reveller from a visitor, the living from the dead? Well, can you, dear reader?
May fear protect you when the darkness comes.
Til next time.