Halloween

By Daniel Maclise, Snap-Apple Night

31 October

Celebrated annually on the last day of October, Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Hallows’ Day. The Scots word for ‘eve’ is ‘even’ which is shortened to ‘e’en’ and has been conjoined into the name Hallowe’en and later Halloween. Traditionally, notable dates which national importance in Britain begin at sundown the night before, such as Christmas Eve. Halloween is therefore the nightly beginning of All Hallows Day, which itself is a Christianisation of an older Gaelic festival: Samhain.

The origins of Halloween are placed in honouring and commemorating the lives of the departed, from saints and historical figures to relatives and friends. Tradition holds that the walls between the world of the living and the world of the dead are at their thinnest during Hallowtide, which lasts from Halloween to All Souls Day. Cultures throughout medieval Europe held similar customs around the end of October, with many spreading throughout the world with later colonisation. The Day of the Dead, which takes place in Mexico from 31 October to 2 November each year, is a celebration of those who have died, and although it is more joyous than traditional European practices, it can be traced in part back to Hallowtide, along with having links to Ancient Aztec practices. It is closer in spirit to the evening celebrations of Samhain than of contemporary Halloween, in that Samhain was a time of celebration and feasting to honour those who have passed over, beginning as Gaelic festivals tended to do at sunset the night before.

It is the night set apart for a universal walking abroad of spirits, both of the visible and invisible world.

Robert Chambers, The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities

In the north of England, Halloween was known as Nutcrack Night, as nuts and apples would be the treats of the evening, but also used as favours for lovers to share. An Irish custom involved naming a nut after a lover and placing it near the fire. If it cracked or jumped during the night, then it was believed the lover had been unfaithful. Throughout Britain a popular game involved hanging a balanced stick from the ceiling by string, with an apple at one end and a lit candle at the other and spinning it round. Revellers would jump and attempt to bite the apple, but would often find themselves hit in the face by the candle flame. Apple-bobbing and other games such as pulling up stalks from the garden blindfolded to see who gets the longest were also commonplace as the evening went on. Less playful customs included wetting a sleeve of a hung garment to see if a future lover’s face would appear in it, dipping fingers into a bowl of clean or dirty water to see whether one would marry, and exposing harvested crops three times to the wind to invite good fortune.

Many old customs of Halloween have died out and been replaced, though what seem like modern traditions have a longer history than is apparent. Soul cakes would be baked and given to children who would knock at the door around sunset, which can be traced to the modern custom of trick or treat. Lanterns would be made from hollowed turnips, representing the souls of the dead, which have now been replaced with pumpkins bearing spooky faces. A lot of the old customs were removed during the Reformation, and at times led to witch hunts, resulting in the occult association of Halloween. The practice died out from mainstream Britain, but was observed in parts of Scotland and Ireland, then following mass immigration to North America in the 19th Century it became popular again. Through American influence upon British culture in the 20th Century the holiday of Halloween gradually returned, though it has become incredibly commercialised. There is now movement to rekindle ancient traditions, uniting the old with the new, in what is one of the most influential dates in the annual calendar.

Daniel Maclise, Snap-Apple Night
Daniel Maclise, Snap-Apple Night, Public Domain
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