Sometime in the 8th century, Pope Gregory I (540 – 604 AD) had the date of the All Hallows’ feast moved from the 13th of May to 1st of November. It is thought that in doing so, he was attempting to replace or eradicate the Celtic festival of the dead (or Samhain) with a more church related and therefore controllable celebration. Samhain transposed initially into All-hallows-even and then still later into Hallowe’en and then of course Halloween. Many believe that Halloween is a time when the spirit world can make contact with the physical world, a night when magic is at its most potent.
Throughout Britain, Halloween has traditionally been celebrated by children’s games, telling ghost stories and the carving of faces into hollowed-out vegetables such as swedes and turnips. These faces would then be illuminated from within by a candle to be displayed in windows to scare off any evil spirits that may be lurking. The current use of pumpkins is a relatively modern innovation imported from the United States, as has the ultra-quaint ‘trick-or-treat’ tradition!
1) It is commonly believed that 31st October was an ancient pagan festival associated with the supernatural, but it also has religious connotations. There is disagreement among historians about when it actually began. Some say it was introduced as All Saints’ Day in the 7th century AD by Pope Boniface IV, as All Hallows Eve in the 8th century by Pope Gregory and as a celebration to commemorate the martyrs and saints of the Christians in the 9th century. In medieval Britain, ‘Halloween’ was the eve of the Catholic festival All Saints or All-Hallows, from the Old English ‘Holy Man’, on 1st November, followed on the 2nd by the feast of All Souls.
2) The tradition of carving a face on mangel-wurzles, swedes and turnips on the last Thursday in October to make them into a lanterns to be lit by candles was for children to carry them through the streets to ward off evil spirits.
3) Much of the modern supernatural lore surrounding Halloween derives from the 19th century when Scots and Irish settlers took the customs and traditions of All-Hallows to North America, where it became known as ‘trick or treat’. Ironically the revival of interest in Halloween during the 1970’s came from America through American TV programmes and the 1982 film E.T.
4) Although there is no evidence the pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated Halloween, the Venerable Bede cites that the month was known as ‘Blod-monath’ or blood month, when surplus livestock were slaughtered and offered as sacrifices to the pagan gods. Besides that reference there is no written evidence that 31st October was linked to the supernatural in England before the 19th century.
5) Halloween as a festival of evil other-worldly forces is an entirely modern invention. Razor blades in apples, cyanide in sweets, poltergeists, swamp-things and being haunted by malignant shadows of the dead on or around the 31st October is more common ‘rip ‘em up an’ slash ‘em’ in horror films, reflecting modern fears and terrors.
6) In pre-Christian Ireland, 1st November was known as ‘Samhain’ or summer’s end, the date that 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 ‘Feis na Cara’ (a celebratory dance festival) It was not until the 19th century when the anthropologist Sir James Frazer popularised the idea of Samhain as an ancient Celtic festival of the dead when pagan religious ceremonies were observed.)
7) In medieval times on the 1st November, prayers were said for souls trapped in purgatory. It was believed to be a sort of ‘halfway house’ on the road to Heaven, and it was thought their ghosts could return to earth to ask relatives for assistance in the journey. From this grew the Catholic tradition of offering prayers to the dead, the ringing of church bells and lighting of candles and torches on 1st November to provide a link with the spirit world
8) ‘Souling’ was an early form of carol singing where groups of adults and children in traditional wearing costumes would visit big houses to sing for the occupants and collect money and food. Souling was common in Cheshire, Shropshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire on 1st and 2nd November while in other parts of northern England special cakes were baked and left in churchyards as offerings to the dead.
9) Until the 19th century, bonfires were lit on Halloween in parts of northern England and Derbyshire. Some folklorists believe the enduring popularity of the Guy Fawkes celebrations on 5th November harks back to memories of the older pagan fire festivals of the 17th and 18th centuries.
10) Halloween has also been linked to romance, spreading to England from Scotland as a result of the popularity of Robert Burn’s poem Halloween in Victorian times. One love divination mentioned by Burns includes placing hazelnuts in the fire, naming one for yourself and the other for your partner. If they burned gently and then went out, this indicated a long and harmonious life together; if they coughed and spluttered or exploded, this was a sign of problems ahead. Apples were also used for divination purposes, the fruit floating in water or hung upon strings, to be seized by the teeth of the players.