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Halloween, its folklore and history - or why everything you know (about its origins) is wrong

Filed under: Ghostly History & theory — loretta @ 06:00:22 pm

Halloween pumpkins
The following was put together originally as part of the Calendar of the Dead series. The history section for Halloween goes against current popular belief as regards its origins but I think the historical truth is more interesting and revealing.

Customs & Beliefs
The Christian festivals of All Saints (1st November) and All Souls (2nd November) and their eve, Hallowe’en, make up the period called Hallowtide. The two festivals were commemorative days for the dead and the Saints. Hallowe’en (aka All Hallows or Holy Eve) was said to be a time when witches and fairies were abroad and of course, ghosts. Like the eve’s of other Christian festivals (St Marks, St Johns, May Day/Walpuris) dark forces rise before the holy day. Shakespeare, in the Merry Wives of Windsor, sends Falstaff into the woods on this night to be set upon by hobgoblins.

Hallowe’en is associated with divination, particularly love divination, often using nuts and apples which are plentiful at this time. It is also known as Nut Crack Night, perhaps because of this.

Robert Burn’s poem Hallowe’en, written in the late 18th century is all about rites and practices to find your true love and discern your future happiness. Examples of divining rites are peeling the skin from an apple in one piece, throwing it behind you and the letter that it most resembles will be the initial of your future husband, or mark two nuts with the initials of lovers and place them on a shovel over a fire, if they roast quietly the union will be good, if they pop and jump, then it will not. At midnight stand before a mirror, brush your hair in front of it, and the figure of your future partner will peer over your shoulder. Young men in Ireland might pull up cabbage stalks, their size and the amount of earth that adhered to them foretold whether their wives would be tall or short, rich or poor. (Roud 2003 & 2006.)

Porch watching could also happen at this time, one record from 1911 in Wales, said that if you went to the church at midnight you could peer through the key hole and spy spectral forms of, or hear spirits call the names of those who would die in the neighbourhood in the coming year. (Roud 2003.)

Hallowe’en has certainly been associated with games involving apples (such as bobbin’ for apples) and nuts since the 19th century, in England children might attend parties and play at scaring people with lanterns made from turnips and swedes. Records from the early 20th century show that scary children’s parties existed before the tide of American Hallowe’en arrived in the 1970s and 80s. It has been suggested that children in the south and east of England were more likely to celebrate November the 5th than Hallowe’en, whilst this was more popular in the north and west.

In parts of Somerset is Punkie Night, which occurs at the end of October, it involves both children in fancy dress and lanterns which are called Punkies (or Spunkies) that are made from carved turnips and mangold wurzles. The popular story told about the origin of Punkie Night are prosaic and unconvincing (one version being men from the village lost their way home in the dark and made the lanterns to see with), it is more likely a local variation of Hallowe’en. It is note worthy that Punky is also the name for bog lights and Puc (or Puck) is the name for goblins. The lanterns are known as Jack o’Lanterns in eastern parts of the country, which is also another name for flares of marsh gas.

Hallowe’en celebrations in Ireland and Scotland were more prevalent and recorded earlier than in England. Scottish children disguised themselves and went house visiting; in parts of Scotland, Ireland and Northern England, the night is called Mischief Night when children played tricks, believing that anything done on that night was beyond the law. It is likely that the Scottish and Irish traditions were exported to America with the immigrations in the 19th century and formed the practices which are current today. In Caernarvonshire, along with customs such as special suppers and house parties found elsewhere, there was also a ritual of placing a piece of bread on the window sill, with the words ‘May’st thou bless thy whole family, This is what I give thee this year.’ The implied recipients were ancestral spirits. In contrast, in the Cambridgeshire Fens, food was placed on the doorstep to appease any witch that may approach, along with a number of other precautions and defences against evil. Both are probably vestigial pre-Reformation customs, to propitiate or comfort the dead. In Wales it was a night to avoid stiles, crossroads and churchyards, when spirits gathered there, when the Black Sow or White Lady were abroad. In 18th and 19th centuries men would dress in rags and masks and go about the night, frightening children, they called themselves gwrachod, or hags, ancient figures of fear from medieval tales. (Hutton, Roud 2003 & 2006.)

One current popular belief associated with Hallowe’en that is often stated as fact is that the origin of Hallowe’en is Samhain (pronounced Sow-in), a festival from pre Christian Ireland which took place around early November. This is widely believed not just by Neo-pagans, who promote the idea of an earlier festival, high jacked by Christianity, but also by the general populace. However, the idea of old Samhain celebrations as the source for Hallowe’en comes from relatively recent times. In the 19th century Sir John Rhys suggested Samhain was the Celtic new year which he ‘inferred’ from contemporary folklore and this was popularised and expanded upon by Sir James Frazer when he used it to support his own idea that it had been a pagan feast of the dead. That the medieval church dedicated the 1st and 2nd of November to Christianize a pagan festival. Neither position is supported by direct evidence, only by a great deal of supposition and conjecture. (Hutton.)

The celebration of Samhain is known only from medieval texts which recorded traditions and stories, many hundreds of years after the time they were set in and long after Ireland was Christianised. Similar feasts in Scotland and Wales are also known only from later sources. Samhain occurred just after the harvest was finished. It was a time of assembly when the Kings and lords gathered together for feasting, it was also a time to pay taxes. Whilst the stories set at Samhain often contain encounters with fairies and deities and other magical beings, the dead play no part. Nor is there any suggestion that these magical beings are particularly part of Samhain, although Gantz suggested it was a time of unusual supernatural power because of the number of stories which contained these elements. Hutton points out that this may be simply because the Samhain gathering was a useful setting for such stories in much the same way as the Arthurian stories commenced with a courtly assembly for Christmastide or Pentecost. There is no evidence that it opened the Celtic New Year. Frazer’s argument that it was a Christianisation of a pagan Celtic festival is inconsistent with its early history when All Saints was celebrated on a variety of calendar dates in different parts of the Christian world, in Ireland this was April 20th - no where near the date of Samhain. (Hutton.)

The real origins of Hallowtide, are probably dual, they may be both Christian and pagan, but there is no evidence for it being ‘Celtic’. Light can be shed on this if we examine the early history of the Christian festivals All Saints and All Souls. In 609AD Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome and dedicated it to the Blessed Virgin and the Martyrs on the 13th May. This date was already in use in the Mediterranean world as the feast in honour of the Martyrs and Saints as mentioned by St Ephraem in the mid-4th century (Hutton). This was not celebrated consistently on that day in other parts of the Christian world. In the 8th century Pope Gregory III moved it to the 1st November to honour the day that the Oratory in St Peters was founded. Pope Gregory’s links with Germany suggest there may have been practice in this part of northern Europe which he was endorsing (this may be linked to the Teutonic Feast of the Dead but I cannot find reliable sources to substantiate whether this even existed).

Odilo, the Abbot of Cluny established the Chair of St Peter or the Holy See on the 22nd February, when he ordered a solemn mass for the souls of all Christian dead in his monastery and daughter houses. He moved this day for All Souls to the 2nd November and its celebration was well documented since 1030. (Schmitt.)

What is significant about the celebrations of All Saints and All Souls is the original dates chosen for them: the 13th May and the 22nd February respectively. Both are connected to the dates of Roman pagan festivals which honoured the dead: the Lemuria and the Parentalia.

The Lemuria lasted 3 days in May, 9th, 11th and finishing on the Ides of May, the 13th. It was a religious day to honour those dead which might haunt the living because they had not been properly buried and were not remembered. The dead were offered beans by the head of the household whilst reciting a verse intending to drive them away from the home (see AGC Newsletter 40, Spring 2012).

The Parentalia was a major religious festival during the month of February, commencing on the 13th and climaxing on the 21st with the Feralia (the 22nd being a private festival for family gatherings). These festivities honoured the ancestral and familial dead, Ovid writes of visits to family tombs with offerings of flowers, wine and bread. (Wikipedia.)

The use of these dates is a clear appropriation of older Roman practices and beliefs by the church. Schmitt says the festival for the Souls of Christian dead was a likely attempt to eradicate the Parentalia and the custom of offering libations on graves, whilst Medieval liturgists agreed that the Lemuria was the origin for Hallowtide. Perhaps the familial duties of the Parentalia and the superstitious fear of the Lemuria were persistent and strong beliefs even in the early church. In parts of Italy today, dishes containing beans are traditionally eaten on these holy days, the funereal connection of this food goes back to classical times.

Roman Ghosts

The foundations for the Christian commemoration of Saints and Souls originated with Roman commemorations of the dead, it’s not unreasonable to suggest some of the superstitions and darker associations of these earlier rites have lent something to Hallowe’en. The popularity of the Eve over its holy days and the prevalence of apparently unchristian customs is due at least in part to the success of protestant reformers to eradicate the holy days of All Saints and All Souls.

All Saints and All Souls (1st-2nd November)
Once the belief in the existence of purgatory was established in the early medieval period it became important to try to help souls to move on. Activities such as all night vigils and bell ringing in churches were supposed to help relieve their suffering and ease their path to heaven. Hutton says that by the end of the Middle Ages these were spectacular feasts when churches laid on extra supplies of candles and torches to be carried in procession. In 1539 the church of St Mary Woolnoth paid 5 maidens to play harps by lamplight, in the 1470s the mayors of Bristol were expected to entertain council dignitaries to fires and drinking with spiced cakebreads. (Hutton.)

After the reformation in Britain the feast for All Souls was was dropped, as the concept of purgatory was rejected from the liturgy in 1559, the religious practices associated with it were banned. However, bell ringing was very popular and persisted for many years with various prosecutions recorded in the later 16th century. In some persistently catholic areas of the country, vigils of prayer and fire took place in the fields in the night to pray for the dead, giving rise to ‘Purgatory Field’ in place names. (Hutton.)

Offerings of money and food in the form of Soul Cakes had been traditionally given to the poor at this time, this was also supposed to help the souls of the dead, the poor representing the dead in taking receipt of alms and food. In 1686 John Aubrey records that in Shropshire and surrounds, high heaps of Soul Cakes were set on the table for friends and visitors, not just in papist households; the receiver was expected to repeat the rhyme: ‘A soul cake, a soul cake, Have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake’, in other areas ‘God have your soul, bones and all’ was also known. This secular activity persisted at least into the 19th century, house visiting for food became known as souling although it was generally carried out later on by children. In rural Cheshire and Staffordshire it was known until the 1950s and the caking rhyme is still used in Sheffield today without understanding its original meaning. (Roud 2006.)

Souling is also the name given to a type of Mummers play, the only surviving example of which is from Antrobus in Cheshire, the entertainments being provided alongside Soul Cakes and beer. (Roud 2006.)

The Hallowtide rituals are complex and varied. Although we now think of America as the source for current celebrations, the picture is in no way that simple with many earlier rituals have given rise to current practices, such as house visiting, food begging and ‘tricking’ all being elements existing before. In 19th century Cornwall ‘Ringing Night’ was on the eve of Guy Fawkes Night and children would ‘holloa’ for biscuits, both activities probably fragments of the earlier ringing traditions at All Souls and Soul Cakes, but moved to the new celebration and their original meaning lost (Roud 2006). Bon fires are a feature of Guy Fawkes Night and would have originally been part of the Hallowtide rituals, although as Roud points out, bonfires at gatherings in winter is hardly a surprise in northern Europe. The common practices and features of this time of year have waxed and waned and taken new forms and meanings but they have persisted to this day. Although All Souls was reinstated in 1928 as a commemorative day in the Church of England, Hutton points to Armistace Day on the 11th as the new day for the dead in November, a coincidence of date but a fitting one.

Hutton, R., (1996) The Stations of the Sun, Oxford, reissued 2001
Schmitt, J.-C., (1998) Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, trans. T. Lavender Fagan, Chicago
Roud, S., (2006) The English Year, London
Roud, S., (2003) The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland London
Wikipedia, (2012) Parentalia Retrieved from Sept 2012

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