This article was first published by History Extra in October 2014
Every year Halloween provokes controversy and divides opinions: most people see it as just as a bit of harmless fun, while others say it marks an ancient pagan festival – and some evangelical Christians claim it is a celebration of dangerous occult forces. According to folklorist Steve Roud, Halloween is “the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented day in the festival year”
Here, Dr David Clarke from Sheffield Hallam University – an expert on British folklore – investigates the origins of Halloween and its traditions, separating fact from fiction…
A religious festival?
Most people believe 31 October is an ancient pagan festival associated with the supernatural. In fact, it has religious connotations – although there is disagreement among historians about when it begun. Some say Hallowtide was introduced as All Saints’ Day in the 7th century AD by Pope Boniface IV, while others maintain it was created in the 9th century AD by Christians to commemorate their martyrs and saints.
In medieval Britain, ‘Halloween’ was the eve of the Catholic festival All Saints or All-Hallows (from Old English ‘Holy Man’) on 1 November, and was followed by the feast of All Souls on 2 November.
We didn’t always carve pumpkins
The tradition of carving a face on a turnip or swede (and more recently pumpkin), and using these as lanterns, seems to be a relatively modern tradition. On the last Thursday in October, children in the Somerset village of Hinton St George carry lanterns made of mangel-wurzles (a type of root vegetable). The light shines through a design etched on the skin. They are carried around the streets as the children chant: “It’s Punky Night tonight, It’s Punky Night tonight, Give us a candle, give us a light, It’s Punky Night tonight.”
c1867: Magazine illustration of a group of children putting an illuminated Jack-o-Lantern on a farm fence post on Halloween night. Engraving titled ‘The Pumpkin Effigy’. (Photo by American Stock/Getty Images)
We didn’t ‘trick or treat’ in England until the 1970s
Much of the modern supernatural lore surrounding Halloween was invented as recently as the 19th century. Scots and Irish settlers brought the custom of Mischief Night visiting to North America, where it became known as ‘trick or treat’. Until the revival of interest in Halloween during the 1970s, this American tradition was largely unknown in England. The importation of ‘trick or treat’ into parts of England during the 1980s was helped by scenes in American TV programmes and the 1982 film E.T.
Halloween wasn’t always about the supernatural
There is no evidence the pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated a festival on 1 November, but the Venerable Bede says the month was known as ‘Blod-monath’ (blood month), when surplus livestock were slaughtered and offered as sacrifices. The truth is there is no written evidence that 31 October was linked to the supernatural in England before the 19th century.
Nor was it always scary
The idea of Halloween as a festival of supernatural evil forces is an entirely modern invention. Urban legends about razor blades in apples and cyanide in sweets, hauntings by restless spirits and the use of 31 October as the date of evil or inauspicious events in horror films, reflect modern fears and terrors.
A festival of the dead?
In pre-Christian Ireland, 1 November was known as ‘Samhain’ (summer’s end). This date 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 Irish Feis of Tara were held. In the 19th century the anthropologist Sir James Frazer popularised the idea of Samhain as an ancient Celtic festival of the dead, when pagan religious ceremonies were held.
Prayers, not pumpkins
The Catholic tradition of offering prayers to the dead, the ringing of church bells and lighting of candles and torches on 1 November provides the link with the spirit world. In medieval times, prayers were said for souls trapped in purgatory on 1 November. This 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.
This lithographic Halloween postcard was published c1910 in New York City. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
We used to go ‘souling’
Popular Halloween customs in England included ‘souling’, where groups of adults – and later children wearing costumes – visited big houses to sing and collect money and food. Souling was common in parts of Cheshire, Shropshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire on 1 and 2 November. In parts of northern England, special cakes were baked and left in churchyards as offerings to the dead.
Bonfires were lit on Halloween
Until the 19th century, bonfires were lit on Halloween in parts of northern England and Derbyshire. Some folklorists believe the enduring popularity of Guy Fawkes bonfires on 5 November may be a memory of an older fire festival, but there is a lack of written evidence for these in England before the late 17th century.
Halloween was once romantic
Love divinations on Halloween spread 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.
31 October 1886: Irish Halloween celebrations, including the party game ‘bobbing for apples’. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Apples were also used for divination purposes: the skin was thrown over the shoulder, or the fruit floated in water or hung upon strings, to be seized by the teeth of the players.