Halloweens of past and present (updated)

Samhain All Hallows Eve

Happy Halloween!

This week sees the beginning of special part of the calendar which for various historic reasons see 3 of the most important events of the calendar taking place in what would otherwise be a dark and dreary part of the year.

October 31st is of course Halloween and to celebrate we have a Full Moon, well we do on Tuesday morning when I started writing this. Of course, these days Halloween is a fun-filled event for children and families but this wasn’t always the case.

Halloween has its origins in the distant past of the Celtic peoples of the British Isles. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain was a serious occasion with people wearing costumes and lighting bonfires in the the belief that this would scare off the ghosts of their dead ancestors. November 1st marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of a long cold winter. Food stores and wood for the fire, collected during summer and autumn, was now all that people had to keep them from perishing in the harsh winter months.

Celtic Calendar

Celtic Calendar

In these scary times of superstition and witchcraft the death of crops, livestock, and people along with wolves and bears and other things that went bump in night it was almost natural that the Celts believed that these were somehow linked to the spirit world.

The Celts annual calendar was defined by the seasons and Great Britain being where it is meant that harvests were all gathered by October and the 1st November was New Year.  They believed that the night before the New Year, ghosts of the dead returned to the villages from whence they came to wreak havoc, and it was these spirits that were blamed for taking lives and killing crops. The festival of Samhain was held the night before New Year, on October 31st. Bonfires were lit and the Celts wore dead animal skins and heads as costumes to ward off the spirits.   As you can see although celebrated on a very different level the origins of Halloween are alive and well today.

In England they continued to practice their deep-rooted, ancient pagan rites well after the arrival of Christianity in the middle of the sixth century. The Church fathers had become concerned that the popularity of non-Christian festivals was growing at the expense of Christian holy days.

In the year 601 Pope Gregory I issued a decree to his missionaries about the faith and customs of the people whom he wanted to convert to Christianity. Gregory knew that it would be impossible to eradicate the beliefs of the natives totally and so suggested to his priests that they “convert” them whenever possible.    If the native people worshipped at a well, or sacred grove, Gregory informed his missionaries to enshrine them to Christ and let the worship continue.  This is a good example of the way that Christian traditions were crafted onto pre-existing pagan rituals and traditions.

Gregory’s successor Pope Boniface IV in 609, declared May 13 All Saints’ Day. Unfortunately, while pagans were happy to add All Saints’ Day to their calendar, they were unwilling to give up their existing festival of the dead and continued to celebrate Samhain.

Intent on eliminating the ongoing power of the pagan beliefs, Pope Gregory III followed in the footsteps of the earlier Christian leaders and intentionally united the Christian All Saints’ Day to the festival of Samhain. He then moved All Saints’ Day to November 1, which became more commonly known as All Hallows. Because Samhain had traditionally fallen the night before All Hallows, it eventually became known as All Hallows’ Even’ or Hallowe’en.

Previous church leaders to Gregory III discouraged the Samhain tradition of wearing frightening costumes, but Gregory decided instead to allow people to dress up in honour of the saints. Other traditions, such as begging for food and kindling, were made legal by the Church, providing that any food that was given to the beggars would be given to the poor, rather than to appease the spirits.

The Church also added a second day to the festival, this fell on November 2 and was called All Souls’ Day and was dedicated to the souls of those who are still left in purgatory. These souls had to endure the punishment of purgatory for their sins. It was believed that the lighting of candles and the saying of prayers for the dead would shorten the time they were to suffer in purgatory before they would rise to heaven.

The tradition of begging for food soon was replaced with souling or Soul Caking. The idea was for children to go from door to door asking for money to give to the poor and a soul cake to have for themselves. Every cake they would receive, the children would say a prayer for the souls of the dead…. perhaps the origins of Trick or Treat can be found here.

Soul cakes were called many different names throughout England such as Saumas or soul mass cakes which were dark fruitcakes, another cake was covered in caraway seeds and made into a bun.

There are several distinct superstitions that continued towards the modern times.

In England it is said that elves rode on the backs of the villagers’ cats. The cats had fun but the villagers did not and would lock their cats up so that the elves could not catch them.

Children were told not to sit in the circles of yellow and white flowers where fairies have danced as they may be stolen by the fairies. It was also bad to sit under the hawthorn tree because the fairies loved to dance on them and if they saw them their tempers would be prickled.

The black cat was considered to be good luck where as a white cat was considered to be bad luck.   To protect themselves from misfortune, travellers would carry salted bread and holy water with which to chase off demons.

Intertwined with Halloween in parts of Northern England and other areas of Britain is the tradition of Mischief Night. People would take other peoples doors off their hinges on this night. The doors were also often thrown into ponds, or taken a long way away.  Flour bombs or eggs would be thrown at houses or cars and general low level chaos would ensue.

Whereas in America pumpkins are used, in the U.K it is traditional to place Turnip lanterns on gate posts and driveways with many children carrying them around the streets in the early evenings to protect them from evil spirits something I have done on many an occasion.

Turnip lanterns

The traditional alternative to pumpkins and lets face it turnips look more disgusting to begin with.

Halloween was sometimes nicknamed, Nutcracker Night or Snap Apple Night. Families would sit before a great fire in the hearth, roasting nuts and dunking apples before eating them. They told stories and played holiday games. It was an evening of great fun and merriment.

In the North of England the tradition of lighting bonfires was central to the Halloween celebration. Superstition was still strong as a result of the aftermath of the witch-hunts; witches were believed to take to the air to harass everyone at Halloween.

Halloween was called Tan Day for the county of Lancashire. Tan day was so named as it was the Celtic tein, or fire and pitchforks full of burning hay were flung into the air to scare the witches. Another reason was the heat and the smoke of the bonfires would also drive away any airborne witches.

It is sometimes said by people in Britain that the current fondness of Halloween is an Americanism but in reality it is just the re-awakening of a very old British tradition.  At the time of the puritans Halloween was indeed frowned upon and the pilgrim fathers took this behaviour to the New World.  It was only in the late 19thCentury that Halloween entered mainstream culture in North America, partly due to the influence of both commercial reasons but also from the influx of people from non-British backgrounds.  This led to the modern Halloween becoming popular throughout society.  The same thing happened in Britain just a few decades later.

These days Halloween as many modern symbols but they all have roots in the past.  Black cats are associated with halloween because in the past, many old lonely women who were accused of being witches had cats.  The cats were thought to be familiars, animals given to them by the Devil.  Bizarrely these days, Black Cats are seen as bringing Good Luck if one crosses your path in the U.K.

The lanterns that we all know and love come from an ancient fable about a farmer named Jack who tricked the Devil.  This deed meant when he died he could no longer go to Heaven or even Hell and was stuck in purgatory for ever he made a lantern out of a turnip and set a light a piece of coal the Devil had thrown at him to use to see through the eternal darkness he found himself in.

Lots of people associate bats with halloween and vampires but originally they were considered bad luck and if they flew around your house three times it meant someone was going to die.  Worse still, if a bat entered your house you know it was haunted as the ghosts let the bat in.

Spiders are another creature with links to Halloween and many stores and homes are covered in giant fake webs.  In times past, if a spider fell into a candle flame it was a sign that witches were nearby.  If however you saw a spider on Halloween, it means that the spirit of a loved relative or friend is watching over you.

If you’ve ever wondered why witches ride on Broomsticks it is because some of the old women of England were too poor to own a horse or donkey.  They would travel through wild woods with either walking sticks or brooms that helped them keep balance, fight off wild animals or simply feel where they were going in the dark.  Sometimes witches would rub a lotion or perhaps a potion on their bodies that would effect their heart beats and breathing, causing them to hallucinate and imagine they were flying.

In Britain, Halloween is just the first of 3 important dates in a 2 week period with the next being 5th November Guy Fawkes night or Bonfire Night as it is known. Until then though, remember your ancestors and if anything goes bump in the night, just hope it is a black cat.  Happy Halloween everyone!

Samhain Blessings

Samhain Blessings

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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16 Responses to Halloweens of past and present (updated)

  1. Thrinayani says:

    Really enjoyed this piece, it was very well written!


  2. Skye says:

    Stephen, this is a very well written piece. I spent last night learning, once again, about Halloween. I do not like this holiday at all, but I try to keep it in the light of cute fun for my kids.

    Thank you for the time it took to put this together. It was excellent.


    • Thank-you Skye. Yes it can be a fine line with Halloween and lots of people don’t enjoy it or they do then in a very watered down way. I do find it interesting on how the original beliefs which were very understandable for the time have evolved into what we have today.

      Thanks for your comment and for visiting!


  3. karengadient says:

    Excellent post. Got me into the Halloween mood!


  4. Aquileana says:

    Amazing writing… Thanks for letting me know more about Halloween ´s day & celebration;

    Cheers, Aquileana 😉


  5. gn0mel0ver says:

    Great research, Stephen! I loved this post. Who knew about the broomsticks? Oh, I guess you did. : )

    I am trying to commit to memory everything you wrote so I can remember it next year.

    Thank you for your detailed post!



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