As Halloween approaches, we once again delve into the database for all things spooky. But where did this link with ghosts and ghouls come from?

The word Halloween or Hallowe’en dates to about 1745, but the practice of observing All Hallow’s Eve dates back much farther, to early Christianity and beyond. In Christianity, major feasts had vigils that began the night before and All Hallow’s Eve was part of a three-day season called Allhallowtide (comprising All Hallow’s Eve, All Hallow’s Day and All Souls Day). Allhallowtide is a time for honouring the saints and praying for the recently departed souls who have yet to reach Heaven.

Finds on the theme of death: ((left to right) A Post-medieval jetton depicting death with an hourglass, LON-9CACA2 (Portable Antiquities Scheme); a Post-medieval momento mori ring, GLO-927C54 (Bristol City Council); a Post-medieval spoon terminal depicting a skeletal figure, SUR-BCF9D2, (Surrey County Council). All License CC-BY.

The feast of All Hallow’s on its current date in the Western Church may be traced to Pope Gregory IV (827-844), who officially switched the date to the 1st November in AD 835. The choice of date is interesting  and there are several suggestions as to why this date was picked, one of which is that its the same date as Samhain. Samhain was the first and most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Gaelic calendar – the four dates in each year on which servants were hired, school terms started and rents were due. They occurred close to the two solstices and two equinoxes. Samhain was celebrated on the 31st October-1st November in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. A similar festival was held at the same time of year by the Brittonic Celts, called Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Kalan Gwav in Cornwall and Kalan Goañv in Brittany; a name meaning “first day of winter”.

Samhain/Calan Gaeaf marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. Like Beltane/Calan Mai (the May Day/spring equinox festival), it was seen as a liminal time (from the Latin for threshold), when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld was thinner, and the spirits or fairies were out and about. In Welsh it is an Ysbrydnos, or “spirit night”. These spirits were both feared and respected and so offerings of food and drink, or portions of the harvested crops were left out to appease them. The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes seeking hospitality so places were set at the dinner table and by the fire for them. The belief that the souls of the dead return home one night a year is a very ancient one and is found in cultures all over the world.

The household festivities included rituals and games that we would recognise in today’s Hallowe’en activities. Apple bobbing and nut-roasting were used to divine the future, and special bonfires were lit both for divination and protection. From at least the 16th century the festival included mumming or guising – dressing in costume and going from house to house reciting verse or song in exchange for food. If a household donated food it could expect good fortune, while not doing so would bring misfortune. By the 18th century, this had developed into playing pranks and pranksters began to use hollowed out turnips, often carved with grotesque faces, as lanterns.

A Post-medieval bag seal used by seed growers to trade and identify their goods. This one is for turnips and you can just about see a picture of a turnip on the right. Carved and hollowed-out turnips were associated with Halloween long before the pumpin. Record ID is BERK-34C29A2 (Oxfordshire County Council, license: CC-BY-SA).

In England, rather than pranking, people practiced the Christian custom of souling on Halloween: going from door to door collecting soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the dead. They too carried lanterns made from hollowed out turnips. Meanwhile, fires were used to guide returning souls to their family homes and deflect demons from haunting the living.

Later, the spirits and souls of the dead were joined in the Halloween pantheon by other monsters as works of literature popularised vampires, werewolves and the like. Think Frankenstein and Dracula. Thus the modern imagery of Hallowe’en, with its themes of death, malevolence and mythical monsters, comes from many sources – some ancient, others less so. Whichever traditions you decide to practice, we wish you a Happy Halloween!

For some more “spooky” finds, check out the blog posts below:

Devilish Discoveries and Frightening Finds
Spooky Stashes
PAS 15 – Halloween Finds