|Halloween #1, a photo by Duncan~ on Flickr.|
However, there is actually a rich heritage behind Halloween, one that Britophiles in particular should appreciate. Here are ten British Halloween traditions that prove this holiday's complex background and explore the ways it is still celebrated today:
1. Celtic Day of the Dead: Some historians believe that the modern Halloween is a descendant of the Celtic holiday called Samhain (pronounced sow' en). We actually know very little about this ancient pagan festival, but we believe that it was something like a harvest party with a healthy dose of ancestor worship. The "veil" between this world and the next was thought to be especially thin around November 1, and the souls of deceased relatives could come back home to share a meal with the living. This may be the reason for the belief in ghosts and spirits being especially active on October 31.
2. All Hallows' Eve: The word "hallow" means "to make holy or set apart for holy use...to respect greatly," and was once used interchangeably with the word "saint." As early as the 7th century, the Catholic tradition of All Hallows' Day was established to commemorate Christian saints. In Britain this day was observed around the same time as Samhain, so this may have been a way of "Christian-izing" a pagan holiday (though some historians believe that Samhain and All Hallows' really have very little if anything to do with one another). The day before All Hallows' was known as All Hallows' Even, or Hallowe'en, and October 31 became associated with prayers for the dead.
3. Spirits Abroad: As Britain became more Christian, the pagan ways were reduced to superstition. The gods and goddesses of the past may have been abandoned, but their memory lived on in peoples' beliefs in ghosts and fairies. It was once thought that mischievous spirits were especially naughty on Halloween, and if you weren't careful you could feel their wrath.
4. Costumes Galore: The tradition of wearing costumes on Halloween may have begun as far back as Celtic times as an attempt to confuse and distract evil spirits. This tradition seems to have died with the ancient pagans, though, and it probably wasn't until the 20th century that "dressing up" for Halloween became popular once more. Everyone loves a good costume party, right?
5. Mischief Night: Where did the "trick" part of trick-or-treat come in? Those nasty fairies might not have been an actual threat, but there were plenty of people who would have taken advantage of the night's fear and spiritual chaos to play some pranks. There is also an actual "Mischief Night" celebrated in the UK; this falls on November 4, but soapy windows and toilet papered trees have accompanied Halloween festivities for quite some time.
6. Soul Cakes: Considered to be the forerunner of modern trick-or-treating, "souling" was the practice of children and the poor who would go from house to house begging for soul cakes. These spiced cakes were given with the understanding that the "souler" who ate them would in turn pray for the souls of the dead. This hearkens back to the ancient practice of dining with the dead. In later times people decided against leaving food on the doorstep for dearly departed Granny, and instead give her some prayers so that she could get out of Purgatory. Nowadays we've forgotten poor Granny altogether and just give Snickers to little imps. You can learn how to make your own soul cakes here.
|Jack-O-Lantern, a photo by IrishFireside on Flickr.|
This truly fearsome turnip from Ireland shows what
the earliest jack o' lanterns were like.
8. Divination: Believe it or not, the autumnal tradition of bobbing for apples may have its roots in Celtic fairy lore. In 1902 one British author recorded the peculiar superstition that when an apple-bobber finally caught an apple in their mouth they were to peel it carefully, pass the long strip of peel thrice (sunwise) around their head, and throw it over their shoulder. It was said that the peel would fall to the ground in the shape of the initial letter of the bobber's true love's name.
9. Nut Cracking: Apparently Halloween was once known as Nutcracker Night in England. Nuts would have been plentiful around October 31, and families could gather together around the hearth to roast them in celebration of the day.The theme of divination pops up here again, for at one time in Scotland a young lass would put two nuts into the fire and watch their behavior to see if her lover would be true or unfaithful, and if they would be married.
10. Ghost Stories: Tales of restless spirits have probably been swapped over campfires for as long as there have been humans to tell them, and Halloween is a great time for Brits to open up their ancient castles and "dig up the bones" of long-dead stories. The top 10 haunted houses in the UK offer more than enough shrieks for your pound, but if you can't get to one of them in person you can still read and share ghostly tales on this night when departed souls roam the earth.