Since it’s Hallowe’en this evening you’re probably braced for the patter of tiny feet beneath a panoply of fearsome costumes and the piping of tiny voices shrilly demanding “trick or treat, trick or treat”. While trick or treating is a relatively recent tradition that in its current form has come across the Atlantic, there are many other customs relating to Hallowe’en – or All Hallows Eve – that have fallen out of favour over the years.
Many of our older customs are related to the turning of the seasons, to fear or awe of the natural world, to hope for our survival as individuals and as a species. It’s no coincidence that the customs relating to this time of year, when the balance between darkness and light shifts in favour of the dark, the temperature drops and the first of the winter storms arrive, involve fire, warmth and light.
All over the world the early Christian Church aligned pre-Christian customs with the Church calendar, and All Hallows Eve is the day before (the eve of ) All Saints Day, which in the seventh century was designated by Pope Boniface IV as the day on which all saints should be remembered. All Saints Day was originally observed on May 13, but in the ninth century it was moved to November 1. The early Church had a somewhat “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude to many traditional rituals and festivals, and no doubt this was one occasion on which the Christian feast was changed to chime in with existing traditions.
Fire and Light
Hallowe’en has its origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest – a vitally important time of year, since the success or failure of the harvest would determine how well, and whether, one survived through the winter. This was also the time when livestock were slaughtered, so while it was a period of plenty and a time for celebration there was also an awareness that the barren days of winter were just around the corner. It was believed that the boundary between the living world and the world of the dead became indistinct at this time, and that the dead had the power to sabotage the crops. It was vital, then, that they should be appeased or kept at bay – hence the significance of the power of light and fire. Great fires were made, into which the bones of slaughtered animals were thrown, and this gives us the origin of the word “bonfire” (“bone fire” ).
People would wear costumes to disguise themselves as a form of protection against the spirit world – though these were more likely to be made of animal skins than to involve plastic vampire teeth and Frankenstein outfits.
The first Jack ’o’ lanterns were carved from turnips: people would take an ember from the communal bonfire, put it into their hollowed-out turnip and use it to light their way home. The American influence led turnips to be replaced with pumpkins, which are much easier to carve, and the insides of which are equally edible.
Many Hallowe’en traditions involve apples and nuts, both plentiful at this time of year, from bobbing for apples to trying to bite an apple hung from a string. If you peel an apple in one long cut and throw the peel over your shoulder it will form the initial of the person you’ll marry, and putting two nuts in a fire will help predict whether you and your intended will have a successful marriage: if the nuts move together as they heat up it’s a good sign – if they jump apart it’s not going to work out.