‘I ain’t scared of no ghosts…’: Halloween traditions in the Victorian press

Tonight is Hallowe’en when the borders to the spirit world are at their thinnest and the dead walk the earth…

Or it is All Hallow’s Eve, an important Christian date marking the night before All Saints Day (or it has been since Pope Gregory III moved it from its original date in May).

It has now become a highly commercialised and largely secular festival: a chance for retailers to sell sweets and inedible pumpkins, for the very young to dress up and go out ‘trick or treating’, and for the not-quite-so-young to dress up and go partying.

It is – and it seems it has long been – a night for misrule, for chaos, for turning the word upside down.

It is often viewed as an American import. ‘Trick or treat’, pumpkins, the whole commercial element of Hallowe’en was almost entirely absent form my childhood in the 1970s. Now it is hard to imagine October 31 without a constant stream of miniature shots, devils, and witches knocking on our doors while their slightly embarrassed parents lurk by the gate.

But the truth is that it is actually returning export. The traditions of Hallowe’en, developed out of Celtic paganism and the celebration of Samhain and arrived in America with Irish and other British immigrants.

There were several closely linked traditions in Celtic nations – such as ‘nutcrack night’ in Scotland for example. There young people would throw nuts into a fire to see if they lie still and burn (signifying happy marriage) or pop and burst (meaning your matrimony was doomed to be tempestuous).

In Ireland people would gather food and drink in the days before October 31, beginning the process of hunkering down for the winter. This marked the end of the growing season when the land appeared to die and all that farming communities could do was bring in their crops and animals and wait for the spring.

In 1846 some of these traditions were reported in the newspapers, quoting from older folklore texts and were presented with a general sneering undertone which reflected mainstream English Christian distaste aimed at the Irish. But in doing so we can see the origins of the trick or treat custom that is so popular today.

‘The peasants in Ireland’, we are told, ‘assemble with sticks and clubs, going from house to house, collecting money, bread-cake, butter, cheese, eggs, etc. for the feast [of Samhain]’.

Candles are ‘sent from house to house in vicinity, and are lighted up on the next day, before which they pray, or are supposed to pray, for the departed soul of the donor’.

On the night there is feasting, apples and nuts ‘are devoured’, ‘cabbages torn up by the root’. There is divination from nuts again and from hemp seeds. These are ‘sown by maidens, and they believe that, if they look back, they will see the apparition of man intended for their future spouse’.

In Celtic beliefs a man named ‘Stingy Jack’ or ‘Jack the lantern’ roamed the wild at night, having tricked the devil to keep his soul. Unable to enter Heaven or Hell he was condemned to walk abroad at night and he was remembered in the carving of turnips, which were then illuminated with a candle.

When immigrants arrived in north America they found pumpkins much easier to carve than turnips, and a new tradition was born. The tradition of going house to house continued and, probably at some point in the 1920s, was formalised into a sort of annual festival – the ‘American’ Hallowe’en to have today.

So all those ‘ghosts’ and ‘witches’ with their hopeful buckets and their scary costumes are actually a reminder of our deep rooted pagan history. Pope Gregory III wanted to obliterate a pagan autumn festival by superimposing a Christian one.

Just as churches were built on pagan shrines and sites of worship, and Easter and Christmas replaced the existing pagan festivals (of Eostre and Yule) Samhain was relegated to a mere folk story, belonging to a superstitious peasant community, all in an attempt to stamp out any remaining traces of pre-Christian religion.

Given the current pandemic Hallowe’en will be very different this year. Children will not be able knock doors and demand a treat, parties will not happening, the night of misrule will have to be suspended in lockdown but I shall still carve my (entirely edible) pumpkin and mark the passing of autumn and the early onset of winter.

Happy Hallowe’en!

[from The Morning Post, Saturday 31 October 1846]

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