Fleetneedles Forage: The Origins of Halloween
I prefer Halloween to Christmas.
There I’ve said it. I know it might be considered odd but Halloween has always felt much more exciting. Given my nickname as a child was toffee face, there might be a deep-seated sugar-addicted root to this love of the holiday. Over the past few years when I’ve waxed lyrical to friends about how I’m going to celebrate, I’m amazed at how many people mistakenly believe the celebration to be American in origin. In truth, Halloween is an ancient tradition from the British Isles which has been observed for thousands of years.
Samhain (pronounced Sowin) was regarded as the Celtic New Year and marked the end of harvest and the beginning of winter in the pagan calendar. As the nights became longer it was believed that the veil between the living and the dead became thinner. Feasting was held to honour the ancestors and to give thanks for a successful harvest. A large sacred bonfire was lit to pay homage to the dead and to deter any evil spirits from visiting. Fires were then ignited in local hearths with the embers from the sacred fire. This was thought to protect the house and to ensure that the inhabitants were kept safe and warm through the harsh winter months.
Communicating with and honouring the dead was an important celebration and one which communities were loath to give up with the introduction of Christianity. Realising its significance, the church re-branded the date as All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day, a remembrance for those who had died for their Christian beliefs and when bonfires were set alight as a form of purification. Later the festival also became associated with witchcraft and it was thought to be the night when witches were abroad.
Hey Ho for Hallowe’en,
When all the witches can be seen:
Some in black and some in green,
Hey Ho for Hallowe’en
Trick-or-treating (plying kids with cheap sweets) is a new introduction, heavily influenced by American culture, but there’s more to its origin than you might think. Trick-or-treating is, at its heart, a British tradition which has its roots in mummers or guising. This involved dressing up as a devil or ghost and performing a dance or a play in exchange for a sweetmeat or ‘soul cake’ to appease evil spirits. In parts of the North West, Halloween is called Mischief Night and when I lived in Cumbria the tradition was gleefully observed by children and teenagers alike. Local elderly folk would happily regale you with some of their own and sometimes even their parents’ childhood pranks and misdemeanours on that night. It was clearly a tradition that went back several generations.
But while celebrating All Hallows’ Eve continued in an understated way throughout the centuries, especially in rural areas, it didn’t really take off in the UK in a big way until the 1970s. When I was a child, we would dress up for Halloween (usually as witches or ghosts) in our parents’ old clothes. We played games like bobbing for apples and were told ghost stories by spooky candlelight. If we went trick-or-treating it would only be on our street at pre-approved addresses, usually the homes of other little children. Instead of pumpkins, which are of course American in origin, we carried carved-out swedes or turnips as my mother point-blank refused to buy a pumpkin. Let me tell you it was no easy feat scooping those tough little buggers out. I yearned for a big bright orange pumpkin as the turnip always looked, quite frankly, a bit crap. We would eat toffee apples and parkin and drink dandelion & burdock – three of my favourite things.
These days it’s acceptable to dress as anything from superheroes to cartoon characters. I still can’t quite get into this. If I go to a Halloween bash it must be as a witch or a banshee, or at least something in the spirit of the actual pagan holiday. However, I have embraced the American pumpkin. I love how the cut-out designs look lit up on dark nights. And, let’s face it, carving out a pumpkin is a breeze compared to a rock-hard turnip.
We get hordes of children trick-or-treating from round about and I love to see them in their little costumes, hopped-up on sugar and so excited. Even though I don’t know many of them I don’t mind supplying a cauldron or two of free sweets just to see the joy in their little faces. So, while the true meaning of the celebration is largely lost, I adore Halloween for how it brings people together. What other time of year do you have the opportunity to meet new people on your doorstep? Or get the chance to give out sweets and treats to local kids and to perhaps be a part of a cherished childhood memory?
Each year I go a bit mad and decorate the house inside and out in a suitably spooky style so they know they are welcome. Sometimes I get dressed up. To be honest, I think I enjoy it more than they do.
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