Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Comedy of Errors

Happy Halloween

31 October 10 words: Moira Stirland
The history of Halloween as told by a modern day Nottingham Witch (or Wiccan as they are known these days)

All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain, Feralia or El Dia de los Muertos. Celebrated internationally, loved by Witches, despised by some, the festival of Hallowe’en is an integral part of the good old British winter. Games like apple bobbing, trick or treating and dressing up as witches and ghosts have become as traditional as a Christmas Pud but where does that tradition stem from? What are we actually celebrating and does anybody even like pumpkin soup?

Originally known across the British Isles as Samhain, the festival became Christianised as All Hallow’s or All Saints eve, which celebrates all the Saints who do not have a named day of their own. This also served in the early days of Christianity to distract people from the debauchery of the Samhain celebrations.

Samhain, one of the four major fire festivals of the pagan calendar, is still celebrated on October 31st and marks the end of the Celtic year. The veils between the worlds of the living and the dead are at their thinnest and dead souls or evil spirits can cross over to cause havoc in the mortal realms. Ancestral altars in honour of the Beloved Dead were set up with offerings of food and wine to please the spirits. Any livestock unlikely to survive the winter was slaughtered for the Samhain feast and it seems inevitable that more sinister ritual sacrifices were probably made at some point to appease the spirits of the dead. Thankfully that part of our pagan ancestry hasn’t been re-created with the emergence of Wicca.

Evil spirits and ghostly demons come up a lot in Halloween stories and it’s not hard to see why. At a time when pagan beliefs were being persecuted and witchcraft was publicised by the Church as devil worship, people really did believe that you would end up in hell as a result of your bad deeds.

The gruesome masks and costumes we associate with Halloween were originally worn to keep away the demons, goblins, devils or witches who roamed the earth. Pumpkin lanterns were another attempt at warding away evil spirits who might cross the boundary between the worlds. Turnips, parsnips and potatoes were also made into lanterns but most people use pumpkins because, let’s face it, there’s not much else you can do with them.

The name Jack-O-Lantern comes from an old Irish legend. Jack was an Irish sinner who tricked and trapped the devil. When the devil escaped he refused Jack entry into Hell, nor could Jack gain entry to Heaven and as a result was forced to walk the earth evermore. The devil took pity on Jack and gave him a burning coal to light his path, Jack put the coal inside a hollowed turnip and it became the jack-o-lantern we know today.

Trick or treating was traditionally done by kids disguised as demons or ghosts in order to extort sweets out of the local householders. No change there then. Another origin of trick or treating is that of Soul-cakes. It was believed that Samhain was a good time to pray for the ancestors and strangers passing through the village would offer to pray for the souls of the dead in return for cakes and other foods.

Halloween games have mundane explanations, mostly based around finding out who was going to be married next summer. The spooky atmosphere of the night makes it an ideal time for divination and communicating with the dead. Apples are a fruit of the Celtic Goddess and can be used for simple fortune telling. Eat an apple at midnight by candle-light while brushing your hair in front of a mirror to see the face of your future spouse appear behind you in the glass. Apple bobbing is traditionally done using apples carved with names or letters floating in a tub. Picking one out with your teeth would reveal the identity of your future spouse.

Hazelnuts were also used as a form of divination. Two hazelnuts are put in a fire, usually by young girls, one for themselves and one for their lover. The girl could find out if he was her future husband by saying; ‘If you love me spit and fly, if you love me not then burn and die’.
The tradition of lighting bonfires stems from a ‘bone-fire’ to destroy the inedible remains of the ritual slaughter. It was thought that if you started your hearth fire from the embers of the bonfire, no evil spirits could enter your house while it stayed lit. The winter fire also brought comfort to the souls of the dead, especially those caught in purgatory.

Broomsticks, the archetypal symbol of witches, were used in a crop fertility ritual at the beginning of summer, not just by witches but farmers and peasants, to encourage a good harvest. At Samhain, the broom can be used to ritually cleanse a place of negative energy.
As for black cats, they are the archetypal witches familiar, a magical creature who would alert them to the presence of spirits, ensuring that magic and malevolence was not interrupted. Or maybe not – on seeing a scary spirit the average cat is more likely to a) sit and stare until it goes away, or b) run away, than c) alert its owner. A lot of accused witches were just little old dears with a few herbs in the garden, however, and being lonely old women a lot of them had cats. Well, they do, don’t they?

Witches get a bad press at Halloween but, now called Wiccans, they are probably the only people you won’t see dressed up on the streets. They’re all too busy celebrating the real festival of Samhain – honouring the spirits of the Beloved Dead and marking the passage of another year.

As for the commercial farce that it has now become – 99% of all pumpkins sold are used as lanterns. More greeting cards and confectionary are sold at Halloween than any other time of year put together with the exception of Christmas. Hallowe’en. Love it or hate it, it’s been here for centuries and it’s here to stay.

Halloween on Wikipedia

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now