All Hallows’ Eve is a time of the in-between; a time that is neither here nor there. Deeply rooted in ancestor veneration, the Christian church was powerless to wrench it away from our forebears and like many of our ancient feasts it was adopted into the Christian calendar instead. To allow for this to happen, the Christian feast day of All Hallows was moved from the month of May to 1st November.
It is believed that the term ‘All Hallows’ most probably dates back to 17th century Scotland and the shortening to ‘Halloween’ was eventually made popular by Robert Burns’ poem of the same name in 1785.
The discovery of what is known as the Coligny Calendar, unearthed in 1897 France, shows us a glimpse of a much older tradition. The bronze tablet portrays the merging of a lunar calendar with a solar one; a hybrid of the old ways with the new Roman way of measuring time. Dating from the second century AD, the Coligny Calendar depicts Samhain, a Gaelic name given to the time period that coincides with All Hallows. The actual wording is ‘Trinoxtion Samonii’ which translates to ‘three nights of the end of summer’. There are written sources such as the Icelandic Sagas that mention pre-Christian peoples celebrating important feasts that lasted for three nights; Yule and Winter Nights being two examples we have from northern Europe.
Samhain for the Iron Age people was the end of the old year and the start of the new. Any livestock they thought would not survive the winter was slaughtered and preserved or otherwise ritually purified on the fire before eating. The remaining entrails were used for divinatory purposes. The gathering of the last harvests, fruits and medicinal plants also took place during this time. A small share of the harvest was left to placate the puca, a strange shape shifting creature of Celtic myth that was capable of great mischief.
In later years, the Beltane fires were lit once more for All Hallows’ Eve in readiness for driving away evil spirits and household hearths were also lit from these new flames. All Hallows was a time for seeking answers from the Otherworld which was an easier task during this period due to the belief that the veil between our world and the other was much thinner than usual. The ancestors were also honoured with prayers and offerings of food, as were the nature spirits and saints who had no feast day of their own.
It was common for these ceremonial fires to be lit for the repose of the souls in purgatory. People would pray as they held burning handfuls of straw in the air in the belief that this comforted the souls trapped in limbo.
It is very likely that the enjoyment of celebrating Guy Fawkes Night owes more to the ancient rites of All Hallows than it does to the celebratory tradition of the 5th of November, started in 1605 after the failed attempt by Catholic plotters to assassinate the protestant King James.
In Lancashire, there was a custom called ‘Leeting the Witches’, meaning ‘scaring the witches’. It was believed that lighting a candle and carrying it around the fells between 11pm and 12am would unnerve the witches and therefore keep them away. However, it was also thought that the witches would do their best to extinguish these flames which would bring misfortune to the carrier. In many places it was believed that waving around fiery brands would scare witches away too.
Another name for All Hallows is Mischief Night and many tricks were played on people. Doors were taken off their hinges, gates were left open, door latches were tied and doors were whitewashed. This was the perfect pretext for petty revenge.
Children played simple and fun games on this evening such as apple bobbing. Each child in turn had to dunk their head in a barrel of water to try and catch one of the floating apples with their mouth. Snap apple was a similar game, but this time the apple was tied to a string that hung from the ceiling. In both of these games the important symbol is the apple. The apple harvest ends at this time of year and these games are surely relics of ancient rites that were performed in gratitude of the fruit harvest.
Captivating stories of fairies, witches and ghosts were traditionally told on All Hallows Eve, which was also called Nut-Crack Night (a form of divination) and Cake Night (some households baked a small cake for each member of the family).
In some regions on Punkie Night (a punkie was a lantern) village children would walk through the streets singing their Punkie Night song, knocking on doors and asking for money or candles to put inside their hollowed out turnips. Sometimes these hollowed out lanterns were stuck on poles and covered in a white cloth or a face was cut into it and a candle placed inside. Strategically placed on a gate post or in a tree, its purpose was to scare away witches and evil spirits.
“A Soule cake, a Soule cake, have mercy on all Christian soules for a Soule cake”.
The custom of souling, which entailed begging for specially made cakes for the souls of the dead, was widely practised from the time of the Middle Ages. Originally, soul cakes were given to friends and family of the deceased and in some parts soulers begged for soul cake in return for saying a prayer for the dead of the family whose doors they knocked on. In Ireland, beggars would be given food to feast on in honour of St Columbus. A Soul cake was a flat round biscuit that was made from a mixture of spices, currants and raisins and was marked with a cross.
“Soul, soul, for a soul cake! I pray, good missis, for 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.”
In other soul songs there were requests for ale, beer or silver coins and they usually contained verses that thanked the donor, wishing him good health and a long life to his family, workmen and livestock.
In Cheshire, the soulers were accompanied by the Hodening Horse; a man dressed in a white sheet and a horse’s head with hinged jaws that snapped. The Hodening Horse’s origins are obscure, but some believe that it derives from the Norse God Odin or sacrificial horse rites. Others believe there to be a connection with Robin Hood.
Like so many old customs that fade from memory or morph into something else entirely, the custom of baking Soul cakes became rarer and rarer until eventually they were replaced with sweets and money. Irish immigrants settling in America took these traditions with them and the begging of sweets and cake became an activity for children. Events were eventually organised to make it safer for children and the phrase “trick or treat” was coined for the first time in 1939. So now the original reason for giving is forgotten and all that remains is a shadow of a custom that is devoid of any true meaning and importance.
Of all the festivals that offer the opportunity for divination, none is more well known and favourable than All Hallows’ Eve in respect of love, marriage, health, wealth, sickness and death. I will end this post with the following forms of divination that were once performed in England at one time or another on All Hallows’ Eve.
In Derbyshire, young girls would put a crooked sixpence and a sprig of rosemary under their pillow in order to dream of their future husband. Pouring molten metal in cold water and deciphering the shape afterwards was another popular form of divination.
All Hallows’ Eve was a favourite time to test the fidelity of lovers. In Lancashire, this was done by burning nuts in the fire. A woman would put two nuts in the fire, one for her and one for her love. In southern England it was believed that if the nuts exploded, then that was a sign of a happy marriage and in the north of England they believed that same future would occur if the nuts burnt quietly. In Suffolk, ripe brown apple pips were used instead, with the hope that the heat would cause them to explode.
Another form of divination was performed by slipping a wedding ring onto a piece of thread held between the thumb and forefinger saying, “If my husband’s name be…….Let this ring swing”. When the preferred man’s name was spoken the ring would hopefully swing.
On the Saturday closest to All Hallows’ Eve, fruit pickers in Penzance would display their largest apples in their windows and locally these apples were called ‘Allan Apples’. It was customary to buy and give these apples to every member of the family to be eaten for good luck. Young women would put them under their pillow first so that they could dream of their sweetheart.
Young girls would place a piece of clover with only two leaves on it in their right shoe in the belief that the first young man that they came across would either become her husband or another man who had the same surname would.
In Herefordshire, if a girl went out into the garden on All Hallows’ Eve to cut a cabbage at midnight then she would she a vision of her future husband.
The following death divination was also performed in Herefordshire. An ivy leaf was taken for each person and their name was written on it before being placed in a bowl of water and left overnight. It was believed that if a leaf was marked with the appearance of a coffin image then that person would soon die.
In the north of England it was customary to wave a lighted brand in front of the face to forecast good or bad luck. How the fire burnt out indicated this. For example, if the fire burned out quickly, then it could mean the loss of some money.
It was once a custom in Devon and other parts of England to beg for fire on 31st October at rich people’s houses. The fire was generally gifted with money as well.
In Shropshire, groups of young girls would lay their clothes on the back of a chair in front of the fire and waited until midnight when they repeated a charm for ten minutes while waiting to see which of their clothes moved first. This indicated the first of the girls to marry.
If a young girl went out into the garden at midnight and picked a sage leaf at every strike of the clock up until the ninth one, then if she was to be married she would see the face of her future husband. If not, she would see a coffin.
The ‘Church Porch Watch’ was a custom where people used to sit in the church porch all night on All Hallows’ Eve, with the expectation of seeing the spirits of the living who would die in the next twelve months. If any watcher fell asleep during this time then it was believed he would die before the next night watch.
British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936
A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978
The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Henry Taylor, 1906
The History of Honley, Mary Jagger, 1914.
The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, Anna Eliza Stothard. 1879
Shropshire Folklore, Charlotte Sophia Burne 1883