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Halloween Origins and Traditions in Britain

Sarah has a PhD in classical civilisation from Swansea University. She continues to write on the ancient world and other topics.

Small Trick or Treater in Spooky Costume Bears Away Spoils. This photo was taken in the US, but is reasonably typical of what might be seen in the UK .

Small Trick or Treater in Spooky Costume Bears Away Spoils. This photo was taken in the US, but is reasonably typical of what might be seen in the UK .

Halloween in Contemporary Britain

Halloween, the thirty first of October, is a day widely marked throughout the United Kingdom. While its name designates it as the Eve of All Hallows Day, a Christian festival, it is for the most part not remembered as a Christian celebration and the All Hallows Day which follows is barely recognised or acknowledged by most of the population.

In the days and weeks preceding Halloween, the shops fill with spooky and gruesome costumes and accessories, mostly aimed at children. These echo the contents of popular horror films; alongside ghosts and skeletons stand witches, vampires and zombies.

On the night itself, many children go out 'trick-or-treating', processing in small groups in their costumes and knocking door to door and demanding; “Trick or Treat!” when the door is answered. The phrase implies a threat; give us a treat or we'll play a trick on you.

Increasingly, in many cases, the exchange is carefully controlled and sanitised by the adult world. Grown ups buy in selections of suitable 'treats' to distribute to the visiting small children who, in turn, are accompanied at a distance by responsible adults. The implied threat is thereby all but neutralised. Instead, the children's costumes are admired.

In other cases, however, groups of older, unsupervised children may still knock at doors and, if unsatisfied by their reception, will 'egg' the house, daub it with shaving foam or other such tricks.

Adults may observe Halloween themselves by holding themed costume parties, or simply watching horror films in the cinema or on TV.

For most contemporary Pagans in Britain, Halloween is an important time of year as it is also the Eve of Samhain, one of the most important seasonal festivals of the Wheel of the Year, honoured by Wiccans and Druids.

Despite its popularity, there is some disquiet about the contemporary celebration of Halloween. Some people, particularly some Christians, are disturbed by its seeming celebration of darkness and the occult. Others consider the custom of 'Trick or Treating' disorderly and quasi-criminal. There is much general grumbling that, in any case, the contemporary celebration of Halloween is new and “American” and therefore not even sanctioned as an antiquated British tradition.

Christian All Hallow's Eve, Pagan Samhain, imported secular revelry from the US – what is the real history of Halloween in Britain?

Illustration from The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland, showing the young hero Finn about to confront a malevolent fairy on Samhain Eve.

Illustration from The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland, showing the young hero Finn about to confront a malevolent fairy on Samhain Eve.

The Irish Festival of Samhain

Samhain was a festival celebrated on the first of November in Ireland in the early Middle Ages. It marked the beginning of winter and was seen as a counterpoint to the spring festival of Beltaine, held on the first of May.

The festival is often mentioned in early Irish literature. It was the day on which local kings held great assemblies, with all his people gathered together for games, feasting, and entertainment. The night forms the setting for many old tales of the uncanny, involving encounter with gods, spirits or monstrous animals. As we know nothing of any religious observance at the time, whether pagan or Christian, we don't know whether this association with the supernatural was integral to the festival or whether the night of a great assembly with everyone gathered together on a dark, cold night simply provided a suitable backdrop for such stories.

The evidence of later centuries however, when along with the feasting, fires were lit to scare away malevolent supernatural forces suggest that a sense that supernatural forces were stronger on that night and needed to be guarded against was deeply rooted in the celebration of Samhain.

Waves of immigration from Ireland spread traditions of Samhain to the Isles and Highlands of Scotland.

The Welsh Festival of Nos Galen Gaeaf

The Welsh Calan Gaeaf was the first day of winter on November the first and the day preceding it was termed Nos Galen Gaeaf, but there are no early mentions of any supernatural associations with the day.

In later centuries, however, the night was known as a time when ghosts and other fearful entities were abroad, most notably yrHwrch Ddu Gwta, the tailless Black Sow and the Ladi Wen or White Lady.

Bonfires were built throughout the countryside, as they were also in parts of England and Scotland. Potatoes and apples were cooked in the ashes and young people danced and leaped through the flames. Each person would throw a stone into the fire. When the fire died down, children raced back to their homes, as if pursued by the Hwrch Ddu or the Ladi Wen. The next day, people returned to the site of the bonfire, each looking for their stone. If they found it, it meant good luck for the coming year. Not finding your stone foretold very bad luck or even death.

Throughout Britain, the night of Winter's Eve was a day for fortune-telling. Girls would peel apples and try to see the name of their future husband in the shape of the fallen peel. The crackling of nuts in the fire was also thought to provide clues to one's fate.

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Candles lit for All Souls Day at Skogskyrkogarden in Stockholm, Sweden.

Candles lit for All Souls Day at Skogskyrkogarden in Stockholm, Sweden.

19th Century Soul Cake Song

Soul! Soul! For a soul cake

I pray good misses, a soul cake!

An apple or pear, a plum or a cherry,

Any good thing to make us merry.

One for Peter, two for Paul

Three for him who made us all.

Up with the Kettle and down with the Pan

Give us good alms and we'll be gone.

The Christian Festival of All Hallows' Eve

Overlapping the ancient festivals of Winter's Eve was the Christian festival of All Hallows. This festival originated in the fourth century CE in the Roman Empire, to celebrate all those who had been martyred under the Roman suppression of Christianity. This festival was held either in May or around Easter.

In the early Middle Ages, the festival began to be celebrated on the 2nd of November. It soon became merged with a Mass that was to be said for all departed souls, with the idea that the saints would intercede on the behalf of the dead to redeem them from Purgatory. At that time, the threats of Hell and Purgatory were greatly feared among the general Christian population.

In the later middle ages and the early modern period leading up to the Reformation, All Souls Day was celebrated with great magnificence, church interiors being lit with great displays of candles and torches, nobles and civic dignitaries priding themselves on providing great feasts and entertainment. Church bells were rung throughout the land to comfort the souls in Purgatory with their sound.

All this came to an end with the Protestant Reformation, when the possibility of intercession by saints or the living on behalf the souls of the departed went against the new theological teaching. The new orthodoxy frowned on lavish church celebrations and pageantry. Officially, All Souls Day was retained on the Church Calendar as a day on which to honour the saints, but much of the meaning and celebration the day had acquired through the centuries was abolished.

Many, however, were unhappy with the new changes. As the churches were no longer filled with lighted candles symbolising the prayers for the dead, Catholic families in many parts of England, especially in Lancashire, began to gather on hillsides on All Hallows Eve, where a burning bundle of straw was held aloft on a pitchfork as a focal point of prayers for the dead. This custom was observed throughout England, even in areas where there were few Catholics living. The custom of lighting fires for the eve of the first day of winter, and the fires lit to honour the dead became inextricably linked.

Another custom that emerged was the baking and giving of soul cakes on All Souls Day, either distributed to the poor or left on the table for visitors. As one took a cake, it was traditional to recite a rhyme asking for all souls to be blessed.

Throughout Britain, into the nineteenth century and beyond, the custom arose for groups of poor people and children to go from door to door asking for soul cakes or for other food and treats that were also sometimes distributed.

An illustration of a Halloween party for children in the United States, 1903. The children can be seen bobbing for apples, a traditional Halloween pastime.

An illustration of a Halloween party for children in the United States, 1903. The children can be seen bobbing for apples, a traditional Halloween pastime.

The Making of Today's Halloween - The Irish Connection

The foundations of modern Halloween, then, come from a blending of traditions associated with the eve of the first day of winter, Samhain in Ireland and Scotland and Nos Calan Gaeaf in Wales. These celebrations, reaching back into the pre-Christian past, combined a night of feasting and entertainment with a fear of the uncanny. It was a night on which fires were lit to ward off ghosts, witches, and other malevolent supernatural entities, a night in which unseen powers would provide answers to questions about ones fate through various methods of fortune-telling.

Prior to the twentieth century, large scale celebrations of Winter's Eve were most common in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, less so throughout England.

From the popular remembrance of the Church festival of All Saints, when people remember their dead and pray for their souls, came the customs of lighting flames in place of a church candle, baking of soul cakes, and the custom of people, especially children going from door to door asking for food, initially an exchange whereby the recipient would offer a prayer for the souls of the dead, but gradually that became forgotten.

These intermingled and scattered ancient customs and remembrances came together into the much more uniform Halloween we know today largely as a result of mass immigration from Ireland to the United States of America in the 19th century. The Samhain customs they brought with them were adopted with enthusiasm into American mainstream culture. The turnips and other vegetables that were traditionally made into spooky lanterns were replaced by the iconic American pumpkin.

In turn, the enthusiastically embraced American Halloween influenced British culture via the mass media. At the same time, there was large scale Irish immigration into different parts of England, thus further influencing the surrounding culture.

Thus contemporary Halloween has its roots deep in British and Irish history while reflecting the changes of the modern world.

Sources Used

The Stations of the Sun, A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Ronald Hutton, Oxford, 1996

Welsh Folk Customs, Trefor M. Owen, Cardiff, 1959

© 2014 SarahLMaguire

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