Traditionally, Hallowe’en is part of a three-day festival called Hallowtide, which lasts beyond October 31st and on through All Saints’ & All Souls’ Days, on November 1st & 2nd respectively.
I have grumbled on occasion – including on this blog – about the increasing commercialization of Hallowe’en, but as an amateur folklorist I remain fascinated with the origins of the feast, in the pagan festival of Samhain, that celebrates the end of the harvest, and the beginning of winter and the new year. Many Hallowe’en traditions derive from these old beliefs, including (shudders) trick or treating.
I remember back in 1983, when I was nine, one of my friends at school, who had lived in the States, telling us about this custom he had encountered there, and we listened, thrilled and horrified, to tales (possibly exaggerated) of people who had refused to hand out treats, and had their doors smeared with excrement in response. Good grief, we thought, such things couldn’t happen here, where Hallowe’en consisted of a bit of dressing up, a few party games, and perhaps a spot of apple bobbing! The folklorist Christina Hole, writing in 1976, observes:
“In many parts of the country Hallowe’en is almost entirely neglected as a festival night…”
(Christina Hole, British Folk Customs)
But, sure enough, trick or treating became more and more popular in the UK in subsequent years, and the fact is, it does have its origins in British and Irish traditions. Christina Hole relates that:
“Hallowe’en was, and still is in some places, a time when mischievous pranks of many kinds are played and tolerated… young men, and sometimes young women as well… went about the parish in disguise, fantastically dressed, or wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, with their faces blackened by soot or covered by grotesque masks. They went… from house to house, collecting money or gifts of food…”
In parts of the North and Midlands of England, this is known as Mischief Night, which can be a pretty anarchic affair, according to Hole:
“Fireworks are let off in the streets; paint or whitewash is slapped on to doors or windows; door-knobs are smeared with treacle, and drainpipes are stuffed with smouldering paper…”
In my own county of Somerset, we have Punkie Night, after the lanterns, or “punkies”, carved out of turnips or swedes (not pumpkins), which are then put on posts, to ward off the evil spirits that are supposed to be abroad at Hallowe’en – though another story, connected with the villages of Hinton St George and Lopen, tells of local men who had visited Chiselborough fair, which was held every October 29th, and drank so much cider they couldn’t find their way back, so that their wives “…scooped out mangolds which were growing in the fields and, placing candles inside them, went out to guide their recalcitrant husbands home” (Kingsley Palmer, The Folklore of Somerset).
This led to the tradition of local children, at the end of October, going around the streets after nightfall singing:
It’s Punkie Night tonight
It’s Punkie Night tonight
Give us a candle, give us a light
It’s Punkie Night tonight.
They ask for some money, and threaten a “fright” if no gift is given!
The old Hallowe’en fires are now lit on the 5th November – Bonfire Night – to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, but until the late 1800’s it was at dusk on All Hallows’ Eve that they burned, to bless the land and people of the district, and to keep away witches, which the purifying flames were supposed to destroy (in Aberdeenshire, in Scotland, boys would beg for fuel for these fires with the words, “Gie’s a peat t’burn the witches!”).
Divination is also traditionally practised at Hallowe’en, and again this is often connected with the fear of evil – in Wales and Scotland, one ceremony involved marking a white stone and throwing it into the fire. If it was still there, and in one piece, the next day, then all would be well – but if it was cracked, or damaged, then its owner would die before the next Hallow Fire. In northern Lancashire, folk used to (and perhaps still do) perform a custom called Lating the Witches, where large candles are carried over the local hills between eleven o’clock and midnight. If your candle burns all the way, then you will be protected against witchcraft for the coming year – but if it goes out, bad luck will find you…
Other divination rites are somewhat less macabre, and involve searching out a future mate. For example, two nuts – one for a young man, the other for a young woman – are placed on the bars or in the embers of a fire, and if they burn quietly, then the couple will marry – but if they explode, or flare up, then the relationship will not last. Likewise, if you peel an apple, and throw the peel over your left shoulder at midnight on Hallowe’en, it will form the first letter of your future partner’s name as it lands.
I love all these stories, and I wish some of these customs, where they have died out, could be revived – but new ones, I suppose, will always emerge. But I think we should resist those who use Hallowe’en as just another excuse to wring cash out of people. It should be so much more than that.
Punkie Night, Hinton St George