The folklore of Halloween

Published: 18 October 2019

Last update: 18 October 2019

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This blog post is written by Dee Dee Chainey , Author of 'A Treasury of British Folklore' Dee Dee Chainey Author of 'A Treasury of British Folklore'
Illustration by Joe McLaren from 'A Treasury of British Folklore' by Dee Dee Chainey

The transition from summer to winter brings with it a kind of pleasant melancholy. Harvest festivals, haunting tales and bonfire displays provide consolation to the end of hazy summer days. Dee Dee Chainey, author of 'A Treasury of British Folklore', explores the history, customs and superstitions surrounding this ephemeral time of year.

While the true origins of Halloween are shrouded in the mists of time, many see it as a period when we're moving into the darker months of the year. A time when the trees shed their leaves and fields are covered with a glimmering morning frost. When children collect conkers, hiding them in the nooks and crannies of their houses due to their fabled properties of warding off spiders, creeping in from the evening chill.

Early beginnings

Halloween may have its beginnings in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain – the most important of the cross-quarter festivals, which marked the transition from one season to another. Samhain falls on the eve of the first day of winter. A time when animals returned from the fields and great bonfires were lit, rumoured to scare away evil spirits that lurked in the landscapes.

The origins of the festival may never truly be known. Much of our knowledge comes from early Irish sagas, which weren’t written down until the 9th to 12th centuries, after Christianity had reached these shores.

" Autumn was traditionally seen as a dark, mysterious time when the veil between the worlds is thin. It’s a time when the light of summer begins to fade, and the darkness creeps in – along with reflections on the more shadowy side of life. "
- Dee Dee Chainey, author of A Treasury of British Folklore

Allhallowtide

In medieval England, Allhallowtide was the Christian version of the festival and lasted three days. 31st October is known as All Saints’ Eve. It was seen as a time for appeasing the dead, when the veil between the worlds is thin. Well into the 19th century, many believed this was when the spirits of the dead roamed the earth.

All Saints’ Day falls on 1 November, when families traditionally attended church, laying flowers and candles on the graves of loved ones. While its origins are also uncertain, All Saint’s Day may be traced back to Pope Gregory III in 8th century BC as a day to remember the saints.

2nd November is All Souls’ Day, when prayers would be said for the dead. It was commonly believed that this was a day for the living to aid souls in purgatory. In some places, bells would be rung to comfort the souls trapped there, scaring away harmful spirits that lurked nearby.

Festivals, myths and customs

Throughout the world, festivals at this time of year are not uncommon. In Scotland, the Isle of Man and Ireland, 31st October marks the end of summer and welcomes the dark half of the year. The Welsh Halloween is 'Nos Calan Gaeaf'. It’s believed that the Wild Hunt rides high at this time.

" The spectral hounds of the Welsh underworld are led across the skies... Anyone who hears the clamour of the hunt on the wind is said to be destined to die. "
- Dee Dee Chainey

In Ireland, at the turn of the 18th century, it was seen as a time to mark the end of the outdoor farming work. Celebrations were simple affairs, with an evening of traditional foods, storytelling and singing. Today, you can watch bonfires being lit all across Dublin city as evening falls, accompanied by the roar of a thousand fireworks set off to celebrate the night.

Customs and traditions upheld at this time of year abound. Divination – a way of seeking knowledge through ritual – has long been associated with Halloween.

" A common custom was for a girl to peel an apple in one long strip – a feat in itself – and then throw it over her shoulder. The peel would form the letter of her future husband’s name."
- Dee Dee Chainey

Mumming has taken place for centuries. It dates back to the medieval period, when actors would dress up to perform folk plays during festive periods, often by travelling about towns, knocking on doors to perform and sing.

During Allhallowtide, mumming was called 'souling'. Groups would gather to visit houses and process through villages, often in disguise and carrying lanterns. They would be given soul cakes – often a buttery fruit pastry or shortbread – in return for songs and prayers for a household’s deceased loved ones. This might be the origin of modern-day trick-or-treating.

During Allhallowtide, mumming is known as 'souling'. Illustration by Joe McLaren from 'A Treasury of British Folklore'.
Illustration of mumming by Joe McLaren from 'A Treasury of British Folklore' by Dee Dee Chainey
During Allhallowtide, mumming is known as 'souling'. Illustration by Joe McLaren from 'A Treasury of British Folklore'.

Today, many celebrate Halloween by dressing up as witches, devils, and even superheroes. Trick-or-treating is still common, as children go from door to door with buckets for sweets. Yet while some traditions like these are still upheld, few seem to remember their significance, or the strange beginnings they might have had.

We can only wonder as to the fate of those souls, still trapped in purgatory, waiting for prayers that no longer come – the bells that now stay silent as 2nd November passes unnoticed, when the sweets have all been eaten, and the green face paint finally washes off.