Mark Norman
Mark Norman

A few days ago, I stopped off at a large and well known supermarket to buy a birthday card, only to find that my choices were more restricted than usual as most of the birthday section had been removed to make way for Christmas cards. This can only mean one thing – Hallowe’en is coming!

Hallowe’en occurs at what feels like the end of the year, or for some people the beginning of a new year, depending on your perspective of it. Leaves are falling from the trees and things are starting to get a little colder and more chilled. People’s thoughts tend to turn to the darker aspects of the year as the darker times come about.

It feels like there is a connection between the seasonality and time of year and the feelings and thoughts that people have had for centuries around this time of year. That seems to be how the modern festival of Hallowe’en came about and what makes it a special time.

How this time of year developed from being an important magical time for some people to a festival is rather controversial. There is much debate on it and people take it very seriously. There is the argument that modern Hallowe’en is imposed onto the ancient holiday of Samhain, which was three days of feasting that started on October 31st. There are accounts of Samhain practices, particularly in Ireland, where it is said that all the fires across the kingdom would be extinguished that night and then relit the next day from a Druidic hearth.

Hallowe’en used to fall on different dates. All Hallows was at one point celebrated around May time, and then it moved to November 1st. It is really a church festival relating to Purgatory and intercession or intervention with those in the afterlife. During the Reformation is became a taboo celebration, being too much to do with Purgatory and a relic of the old superstitions, and of Catholicism. It was therefore pushed to the margin and only endured in areas where the hold of the church and the state was not too strong. Hallowe’en is essentially, therefore, a Roman Catholic holiday which has been revived in the 20th Century as a result of Americanisation.

Although it was a ‘difficult’ celebration for the church, Hallowe’en became popular in America in the 1700s and 1800s, largely because it wasn’t perceived as being a religious festival. The phrase ‘Trick or Treat’ comes from America and replaced the earlier phrase ‘Shell Out’ which was used at the end of the 1800s.

Trick or Treat was devised as an adult trick on children. There was a spate in the 1930s when children in America were getting very wild on Hallowe’en. Another name for Hallowe’en in parts of Britain and America is ‘mischief night’. In some parts of Britain it is also called ‘gate night’, because the trick played was just to take people’s gates off their hinges.

The way that Trick or Treat is used now is specifically an American incursion. The idea of going house to house and getting given food by people however, is not. That tradition goes back to the associated idea from mediaeval Christianity and the custom of ‘souling’ and the soul cake. With this you would bake in your house a soul cake, made from currants and spices, in the form of a biscuit with a cross on the top. This was in memory of the people in your family who had died and who were in Purgatory.

People would come to the door and ask, “a soul cake, a soul cake”, or sing a song. You would give the poor a soul cake (a treat) and in exchange they perform the trick for you of trying to relieve the suffering of those you love in Purgatory by praying for them. The transactional practice of going house to house and getting given food is therefore older than the modern Trick or Treat.

In legend, Jack O’Lantern is the name that is sometimes ascribed to Will-o-the-Wisps or the lights that are seen on marshes which were believed to lead people astray. Jack O’Lantern was known as a perennial trickster. He was such a trickster that when he died neither God nor the devil wanted him in Heaven or Hell. Legend says that the devil even threw a hot coal at Jack to get him away from hell. He caught this in a turnip, which became the first turnip lantern. Jack was thus doomed to roam the Earth, neither in Heaven nor Hell. He was the first person in Purgatory; the first soul between two places. From that legend there is a connection with the pumpkins that people carve at Hallowe’en as decorations, which are known as Jack O’Lanterns.

How the Jack O’Lantern legend and giving the name to the carved vegetable came together on Hallowe’en is lost in the mists of time. There is obviously a connection between the skull (the symbol of death), the light (the fire of hell) and the need to light up when people go out guising or trick or treating.

On Dartmoor and elsewhere in the area, Hallowe’en was seen as a good time for divination, because of the belief that the veil between the worlds was thinned and the spirits were abroad. A girl who wanted to know who would be her husband, for example, would sit in front of a mirror brushing her hair, whilst holding an apple in her other hand. Whilst she ate the apple, the image of her intended would appear in the mirror behind her shoulder.

Hazelnuts were also often used in this way. By throwing them into the fire
and observing the results, girls would establish who would marry and how happy the marriages would be.

“Two hazel-nuts I threw into the flame,
And each nut I gave a sweetheart’s name
As blazed the nut, so may passion grow
For ’twas they nut that did so brightly glow.”

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