Halloween


Halloween
(31 October)
   The eve of a major Catholic festival, *All Saints (1 November), assigned to this date in the 8th century; next comes *All Souls (2 November), instituted c.1000 ad as a day to pray for the dead. In England since the 19th century, and increasingly in the 20th century, it has acquired a reputation as a night on which ghosts, witches, and fairies are especially active. Why this should be is debatable.
   Currently, it is widely supposed that it originated as a pagan Celtic festival of the dead, related to the Irish and Scottish *Samhain (1 November) marking the onset of winter, a theory popularized by *Frazer. Certainly Sam-hain was a time for festive gatherings, and medieval Irish texts and later Irish, Welsh, and
   Scottish folklore use it as a setting for supernatural encounters, but there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead in pre-Christian times, or that pagan religious ceremonies were held (Hutton, 1996: 360-70).
   Anglo-Saxon texts never mention this date. Bede notes that the native name for November had been Blod-monath, 'Blood Month' (when surplus livestock was slaughtered to save fodder, and some offered as sacrifices), but does not pinpoint one day as significant. From the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, there is no sign in England that 31 October had any meaning except as the eve of All Saints' Day, when bells might be joyfully rung (as also on Christmas Eve and Easter Eve). Mournful tolling marked All Souls' Day, as a call to prayer for the dead. Reformers naturally objected to both, and under Elizabeth I 'the superstitious ringing of bells at Allhallowtide, and at All Souls' Day, with the two nights before and after' was prohibited (Strype's Annals quoted in Hazlitt, 1905: 299). But prayer for the dead proved tenacious; there are scattered references from the 16th to the early 19th centuries to people praying in the open fields at night by the light of straw torches or small bonfires, especially in Lancashire and Derbyshire (Wright and Lones, 1940: iii. 109; Hutton, 1996: 372-4). Contrary to popular opinion, the link with fire is fairly late in England, the first allusion being from 1658, though implying a well-established custom: 'On All-Hallow e'en the master of the family anciently used to carry a bunch of straw, fired, about his corn' (Sir William Dugdale, quoted in Hutton, 1996: 373). Early folklorists overstressed this aspect, pursuing solar symbolism and a parallel to the *Beltane fires.
   Folklore collections of the later 19th and 20th centuries make remarkably little mention of Halloween in England (as against Scotland), and what there is comes mainly from northern counties. Most quote Scottish sources, especially Robert Burns's poem 'Halloween', and it may well be that some customs detailed below were imported from Scotland to England through literary influences and fashions in Victorian times. Writing in the 1950s, Iona and Peter Opie demonstrated that Halloween was popular among children living to the north and west of a boundary running roughly south-west from the Humber to the Welsh border and then down the Severn, while those to the south and east hardly even noticed it (they celebrated *November the Fifth instead). Modern factors have eliminated this distinction, but its former presence supports the suspicion that Halloween was originally Scottish.
   The most common 19th-century references are to love *divinations. All over the country, young people would lay two nuts (in some areas, two apple pips) side by side in the fire, named after themselves and their loved ones, to see whether they exploded or not; in the south, it was generally held that a loud pop was a good sign for the match, but northerners regarded this as bad. As on so many other nights, girls would put something under their pillows to dream of husbands: *rosemary and a crooked sixpence (Addy, 1895: 80), or, in Herefordshire, a sprig of churchyard *yew (Folk-Lore Journal 4 (1886), 111). An eyewitness account from Norfolk describes five men sitting all night round a pitchfork on which was placed a clean white shirt, believing that the sweetheart of one of them, 'were she true to him', would enter and remove it (Major Charles Loftus, My Life 1815-1849 (1877), 302-3; quoted in Wright and Lones, 1940: iii. 114-15). For other Halloween divinations, see *cabbage, *dumb cake, *sage, *three dishes.
   Apples and nuts, readily available at this time, were a traditional Halloween food (hence its other name, 'Nut-Crack Night'), and appear in several old games now revived for children's parties. Players have to catch in their teeth apples floating in water, or hanging from a string, or balanced on a heap of flour. Whereas Scottish children disguised themselves and went house *visiting, English ones more commonly attended a fancy dress party indoors; they also traditionally played at scaring people with lanterns of hollowed turnips or swedes, carved into faces and with lighted candles inside (cf. *Punkie Night). In Yorkshire, they called this *Mischief Night and played tricks on all and sundry.
   Halloween is one of the few festivals whose popularity has increased, not declined, in recent years. Since about 1980, the media have shown growing interest, shops are full of scary masks and witches' hats, and children have taken to roaming the streets in costume, knocking on doors, saying a rhyme, and expecting money or sweets. They use pumpkins, not turnips, as lanterns. A hundred years ago, children's *visiting customs of this type were commonplace, but they have declined so sharply that this new variant is surprising. It is clear from the use of the American term 'Trick or Treat' that it was a direct import from America, familiar to children from comics, cinema, and TV; a contributory factor was the tendency of schools and British children's TV, at about the same time, to present it as a safer alternative to Guy Fawkes Night. There have been howls of protest in this country against the Americanization of British culture, the danger to children out at night, and/or the alarm caused to the elderly. Most vociferous is the backlash from fundamentalist Christians, and even many mainstream clergy, arguing that celebrating supernatural evil forces is morally dangerous, and the fact that it is 'fun' makes it worse. Neo-pagans added fuel to this fire by claiming Samhain is older than All Saints, and was hijacked by the Church. At the time of writing, this moral battle still rages, and many schools have opted to ignore Halloween, for the sake of peace.
   ■ Wright and Lones, 1940: iii. 107-20; Hutton, 1996: 36085; Opie and Opie, 1959: 268-76; Roger Homan, British Journal of Religious Education 14:1 (1991), 9-14.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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