On Hallowe’en

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:35 pm

Happy HalloweenThe local supermarket is pretending to be the props department for “Night of the Living Dead”.  There are plastic skulls, axes, hairy hands, spiders, broomsticks, masks more gruesome than many of the weekend shoppers in the Trafford Centre – and even life-size ravens with glowing red eyes.  Also, a plastic fish skeleton – the relevance of which was lost on me.  Pumpkins are everywhere – they only seem to hatch in October – and the colours orange and black predominate.  Superficially, it’s all quite light-hearted – I spotted some nice, girly, pink skeletons and was sorely tempted to buy a sparkly new, hopefully supercharged, broomstick for the woman next door.

Origins of HalloweenBut, notwithstanding a rather attractive witch pictured in the costume display, some of this Halloween stuff is actually quite unpleasant.  Before you say, “Yes, it’s meant to be”, there are some very nasty pictures of small children made up to realistically resemble candidates for a post-mortem, and a proportion of the material on sale could be considered unhealthily morbid, if not downright malevolent.  Should we be subjecting our children to this?  Is this truly what an advanced society looks like?  Dear oh dear – as some might say. Given that most of this rubbish is manufactured overseas, I have often wondered what other cultures make of it; I am sure it encourages widespread respect.  You even hear people, crassly, wish one another “Happy Halloween”.  Really?!  Of course, it is all a consequence of unregulated capitalism; that is not a criticism, just a statement of fact.  Today’s Halloween is big business and owes so much to the same inspired philanthropists that bring us all those other wonderful, sincere, traditional celebratory occasions – like Obscure Relation Day, International Raspberry Day, Irritating Do-Gooder Day and Fluffy Bunny Day.

Halloween, commercialisationIn short, something quite ancient has been hijacked by people who make it up as they go along, purely to make money.  Until Halloween became the jolly time we all know and love, sensible folk would stay indoors and bolt their doors.  But like many of us and our customs, it has a confused past. So, what are the origins of Halloween?

In the Christian calendar, 31st October is Hallow even, the night of All Hallows, which precedes Hallowmas – or All Saints’ Day – on 1st November.  “Hallows” is from the Anglo-Saxon word halig, meaning ‘holy’ – nothing to do with Harry Potter (sorry).  So that’s where the name comes from; but what’s that got to do with all the scary stuff?

Halloween, churchyardBrewer’s excellent Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, first published in 1870, says, Hallowe’en, “According to Scotch superstition, is the time when witches, devils, fairies and other imps of earth and air hold annual holiday.”  It goes on to say that those born on All Hallows’ Eve are meant to have the gift of double sight and commanding powers over spirits.  In my experience, double sight sometimes comes from having no commanding power whatsoever over certain spirits…but that’s another matter.  In any event, Brewer makes no mention of Christianity and seems to be drawing heavily on Robbie Burns, who a century earlier wrote an entire poem about it and said that Halloween is:

“The night when witches, devils and other mischief-making beings, are all abroad on their baneful midnight errands; particularly those aerial people, the Fairies, are said on that night to hold a grand anniversary.”

31st October was (or is) the feast of Samhain (pronounced sah-win or sow-en), the last night of the year in the ancient Celtic calendar, and the end of summer with all its lightness and bounty.  An ending leads to a beginning; so it additionally marks the start of winter, cold and black as the grave.  The walls between our world and the next are thin and porous at this time, so this is when the spirits of the departed can most easily move amongst us, as can other phantoms, ghouls, spectres and banshees.  Therefore Samhain is also the Feast of the Dead, a propitious time for witches and warlocks to hold particular rituals.  Bonfires would be lit to help the sun on its way through the chill dark months ahead; perhaps the occasional, innocuous, sacrifice would be made.

Samhain, bonfire, HalloweenLater, when Christianity came along, someone decided it was a good idea to have an All Saints’ Day, when every holy (or hallowed) person could be remembered.  There are different ideas as to how and when this came to coincide with the older ritual, but there was doubtless a bit of competition going on.  In the 9th century, Pope Gregory IV formally replaced a May festival of Martyrs with the Feast of All Saints on the 1st November, possibly to counteract the more established celebrations of Samhain.  And 2nd November is All Souls’ Day for many traditional Christians, when prayers are said for the faithful departed and those in purgatory.

Origins of HalloweenIn some parts of Europe, it was customary to hold a vigil for the souls of close ones no longer in this world.  Soul cakes would be baked and, in return for one of those, beggars would promise to pray for the dead of a household.  The tradition of ‘soul caking’ is maintained in parts of Cheshire today, where actors perform a centuries old play intended to protect against the Dark.  No doubt the revellers at Samhain would dress up, sporting antlers and representations of spirits – some of them malignant.  Some say that that the ancient Celts dressed in white and blackened their faces during Samhain in an effort to fool evil spirits.  Nicholas Rogers, a professor of history at York University, Toronto, even claims that in the Middle Ages “there was a certain degree of cross dressing in the actual ceremony of All Hallow’s Eve.”  ‘Guisers’ – people in strange masks and costumes – certainly became popular from the 17th century in parts of Britain, going from house to house singing and dancing to keep evil at bay.  Perhaps all of this was the origin of ‘trick or treat’, a phrase that emerged in the USA in the 1920s.

Jack-a-LanternFood offerings may once have been left for the dead, and some believe that’s how the lantern made from a hollowed out pumpkin or other vegetable evolved.  Carving lanterns from turnips was common in Ireland and Scotland, and exported by immigrants to the US, where the pumpkin is native and easier to cut.  Pumpkins were virtually unknown in the United Kingdom until relatively recently.  In the US, a carved orange-coloured pumpkin with a light in it is known as a ‘Jack O’ Lantern’ – itself with a legend that probably originated from Ireland.  In England, Jack-a-Lantern is an alternative name for ‘Will O’ the Wisp’ – a ghostly light seen by weary travellers at night, or ‘friar’s lantern’ – an ignis fatuus (fatuous fire).  Interestingly, my chum Brewer says that there is a Russian superstition that “these wandering fires are the spirits of still-born children which flit between Heaven and the Inferno.”  Carved lanterns in windows would perhaps ward off evil – or perhaps guide the spirits.  In Somerset, some villages celebrate Punkie Night on the last Thursday of October – spunkie is an old word for lantern.

Pumpkins - neither native food nor tradition to BritainIn short, Halloween is a mish-mash of myths and legends from all over, a cocktail of beliefs and rituals which have been exported to other lands, particularly the USA, and re-imported.  US servicemen stationed in Europe during World War II brought their hybrid traditions with them, ideas spread further, and gradually evolved, via films and TV.  When I was growing up in England – oh, a very long time ago – Halloween was a night for staying under the blankets; bonfires and masks were reserved for 5th November, Guy Fawkes’ Night.  Nobody went trick or treating in any big way until the 1980s (but they did in Scotland, where it is still often called guising) and, for many, the more recent celebration of the failure to blow up Parliament in 1605 is still more popular than its creepier calendar competitor – though you wouldn’t think so judging by the amount of Halloween-related material on sale.

Anyway, when the kids coming knocking on the door yelling, “Trick or treat?”, remind them that they are taking part in the latest manifestation of rituals that go back to a time out of mind.  Or you could say that they are the victims of someone’s marketing plan and greet them, as I do, wearing a ghoulish mask.  Of course, it’s just a bit of harmless fun…isn’t it?

The good news is that being frightened is beneficial for you, allegedly: fear gets adrenaline pumping, helping to relieve depression and stress, whilst at the same time boosting the immune system – and the libido.  So put on a scary movie and have a really good night at any time of the year.

Halloween decorations




34 thoughts on “On Hallowe’en”

  1. Having just read through the many lamentations on the Halloweeny import from across t’ pond, I feel I should say a word or two in defense. Though I am in fact an import from the Old World myself, in the other direction as it were. But actually, you haven’t seen anything. Residing, as I do in a small town named after the author of the Legend of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow, yes he actually lived here and you can sometimes catch a glimpse of the headless horseman himself galloping through the tunnel at the end of our road of a cold October night – if you’re not careful. Anyway, my whole town goes utterly bonkers over Halloween and last night was no exception. The entire town all togged out in costumes traipses around the main streets being dragged by children collecting candy from outside every house. A succession of music bands – most not bad actually – play at four venues around town, mostly on people’s porches so crowds fill the streets and the cops slow cars down to a crawl.
    The hideous costume is one thing, I find the big challenge is not getting completely into character – I get carried away and tend to frighten the kids away for real. Ho hum. Most of the people here seem to have forgotten the trick part and only go for the treat. And something else, it isn’t just the regular shops that fill up with Halloween stuff, we have entire Halloween popup stores dedicated to all manner of gruesome costume tat.

    1. I’m no expert, but I don’t believe the US has a tradition of beheading – so how did the horseman become headless? I think you make the case for it all being a consequence of unregulated capitalism, though; but fun in parts too.

      1. My dear friends at Wikipedia inform that the legend holds, around these parts, … pause for effect … that the headless horseman was a Hessian mercenary fighting for the Brits, just in case anyone reading this doesn’t know – Hesse is a state in Germany, I lived and worked there a few years myself, also though they were called mercenaries, in fact it was the prince of the German state from whence they came who pocketed their pay plus blood money for every dead revolutionary, grim stuff, back to the legend – another dramatic pause … and while mounted on his horse he was decapitated by a cannonball, fired from the Revolutionary side at the battle or White Plains on 28 October 1776. His buddies dragged his headless corpse from the battlefield leaving the bits of his head where they fell.

        1. Fascinating! Ah – I had heard that cannonballs could do that kind of thing; hideous! Anyway, now I understand there is a genuine reason why the USA should have the odd headless horseman or two.

  2. You wrote this post long before I discovered your blog so thanks for pointing me to it when you stopped by. I knew a bit of this — but not nearly so much or so much detail. (Interestingly enough, I just finished a book that had festivities at Samhain but they never gave any historical context or seasonal context. It was translated from the German and I suppose they figured the readers already knew!).

    The turnip carving was interesting. I loved Halloween as a kid (who doesn’t) but find it a little weird now to see older teens at my door. And much of the fun was taken out of it after people started putting razor blades in apples and such and now all candy has to be made commercially; you can’t do apples or make your own. And it’s awful to run out and have to give cans of soup or tuna. (Well, you could turn off your light but that feels bad. Although I don’t mind giving soup to the kids too old to trick or treat.)

    I saw my first Halloween display at the beginning of August. Of course, I’m already seeing Christmas. Feels creepy. I love the ritual ideas so much more!

  3. I am dismayed by the rise and inexorable rise in England of Hallow-thingummywotsit and the Elfin-Saferty led decline of the proper celebration – Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes’ Night, the 5th of November! In my childhood (when the primordial sludge was still a bit runny) it was a magical night of sparklers, eating baked potatoes around a bonfire and being awed by some grown-ups’ firework display. I still giggle a bit when I see the occasional firework. 😉

  4. 🙂 Great history lesson. I did have a long battle with a very crabby women long ago about the history of Halloween. Oh golly, it was ridiculous. She was fit to be tied that I shared just what you did above. HA!
    Trick or Treat

  5. Yes the Halloween costumes and goodies are in all the shops – just think when you go to the Supermarket on Tuesday they will all have gone to be replaced with more Christmas goodies …the year goes by so quickly!
    I enjoyed your post

    All the best Jan

  6. I love the idea of celebrating the end of summer and the beginning of too short days, hoping longer days will reappear – as they do each year. But I don’t like the “monster celebration” the day has become. It’s not very popular in France, though I do have children come & ask for candies every year… Stores here are ready for… Christmas!

  7. liked your first photo very much

    halloween is not celebrated in here in Asian countries but still can find out lot from blogging friends like you

  8. It is incredible to read the amount of money spent on Halloween each year now. Houses are decorated for it now when it used to be only Christmas was when you pulled out special house decor.

    I’ll be at my daughter’s home this year for the occasion. It will be different to see trick or treaters after having none for the 10 years we lived at our former address. Here at our retirement home there will be none either so I’m told.

  9. We are not halloweening this year, but our local supermarket seems to have every Halloween item within a 1000 mile radius for sale, so I assume that everyone else will be making up for us not taking part!

  10. I often think about ET dressed up and out and about.

    1st Nov is a Public Holiday here in France, the shops are full-ish of orange & black stuff but also pots and pots of Chrysanthemums that are bought for the cemetaries and for Rememberance. We do not buy the cut flowers as gifts for our hostess and no flowers ever get taken into hospitals these days..

  11. Hi Mike – it is a mish mash of ideas and beliefs … one I’ve tried to unravel to post about – but it’s always been a half-hearted attempt. Great to have your ‘learned’ thoughts here … and will we ever know where our feast days originated … but certainly the seasons played a role, as too history.

    I only remember Guy Fawkes – and am a bit put out by Halloween! But in Sussex we celebrate Bonfire Night … not sure what’s happening this year in Lewes – as the trains are in turmoil and they are not stopping in the town … so Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot (1605) are remembered, as too the Marian Persecutions – Protestants, who were executed, if they had committed heresy against Catholicism … covering the period 1503 – 1625 … religious persecution was common for so long.

    I’m staying quietly in Eastbourne … though some ‘lads’ have let off some fireworks already … here’s to a safe and happy Halloween and Guy Fawkes to one all – cheers Hilary

  12. That’s the most complete history of Halloween I’ve ever read! I know some of my British friends are annoyed that America’s customs have been forced upon them (I guess by advertising) but I think Halloween and trick-or-treat is a fine excuse for children to have fun. i love having them come to our door in their costumes, mostly princesses or characters from movies I’ve never seen but they are happy to tell about, for candy. It’s a festive night with porchlights on and pumpkins glowing in the dark and I’m looking forward to it again this year.

  13. We used to have what we called ‘mischief night’ on November 4, which was a night for playing tricks on people. Bonfire Night was ALWAYS November 5 – whatever day of the week it was – and it was ALWAYS foggy on November 6 because of all the firework fumes. Hallowe’en didn’t happen.

  14. Wow, you always supply us with such insight and humor, and information, lots of history here today. I do agree with the extent that unfortunately some folks with bad taste and mind sets have taken Halloween to the dark side! My mother born aboard had no idea what this HALLOWEEN tradition was, but being a good mother she bought me a very cute cat or good witch costume every year and she allowed us to enjoy this strange American pastime! Even in later years she joined me with my children, and later my grandbabies on our “Happy” haunting family experiences but we never ever joined the dark side of it!

  15. All Saints Day’ is celebrated in Croatia by visiting the cemetery and putting flowers and candles on graves. Halloween has become a thing in the last few years with people having parties and such but not everyone is pleased with yet another Americanization

  16. During my childhood and teenage years in the 1970s and 80s, here in Germany Halloween was something we knew from American movies and of course through the many US military folks living in our area. But it had nothing to do with us, and you wouldn’t have found any such products in the shops. Over the past 15-20 years or so, every year the hype around Halloween seems to increase, and now it is omnipresent. I have never done anything specific for that night and won’t start now, as I simply do not consider it a naturally grown tradition here.
    As for pumpkins, I really like pumpkin-related food, such as soups, stews, quiches and risottos. And the date itself – 31st of October – has a special meaning for me because it was my late husband’s birthday. He would have been 48 on Monday.

  17. When I was a child, oh these many years ago, Halloween was a rather light hearted night for children, we dressed up as cowboys, Indians, princesses, the occassonal ghost or witch. Now it’s creepy and more adult orientated.
    When we were in Japan there were Halloween displays in stores and our daughter said it was definitely an adult event.

  18. Will o the wisp is marsh gas so I told so Ireland being boggy they get quite a bit. My Father saw one once sail over a hedge towards him then disappear over the next, scared the living daylight’s out of him as a youngster. Halloween was good when we were young but now I fear it has gotten a bit out of hand thanks to our breathrin over the water

  19. Sadly, as you say, it’s become a crass “holiday” fueled by businesses offering all manner of costumes, decorations and foods, anything to part you from your money .

    I very much enjoyed Reading about the history in your post here. I did not know that turnips were carved out as we do pumpkins here!

A Bit About Britain welcomes visitors. What do you think?

Scroll to Top