October - Hallowe'en or Samhain?

Spooky looking pumpkins arranged outside a door in the Chirk Castle courtyard

Away from all of the ‘trick or treating,’ and buckets of sweets I thought that you might like a brief look at some of the British traditions which have largely disappeared...

The Celts referred to Hallowe’en as The Samhain festival; during this time you would lead your livestock home from summer pastures to their winter shelter. Samhain Eve was a time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead grew thinner, and ghosts ventured toward the warmth of people’s homes and hearths. On the Eve, bonfires were built in memory of departed ancestors, and food and drink were left on tables overnight for their ghosts to eat.
 
Intent on eliminating Pagan beliefs, Pope Gregory III united the Christian All Saints’ Day to the Festival of Samhain, and then moved All Saint’s day to November 1st, which became known as All Hallows. Because Samhain had fallen the night before All Hallows, it eventually became known as All Hallows Eve’ or Hallowe’en.
 
In parts of northern England, the festival was known as ‘Mischief Night’ – people might even take their neighbour’s doors off their hinges on this night, and hide them! In Norfolk, it was believed that on this night elves would ride on the backs of the village cats – the cats apparently enjoyed the experience, but villagers discouraged it and locked their pets up for the night. ‘Punkies’, cut out of large beets with lights inside, would be carried through the streets as people sang the ‘Punkie Night Song’ before knocking on doors and asking for money.
 
The Church added a second day to the Festival, All Souls’ Day, which was dedicated to those souls still in Purgatory: lighting of candles and saying of prayers was believed to shorten their time here, and flat round Soul Cakes, made of oat flour, became common at this time of the year. In Scotland, these cakes were known as Dirge Loaves.
 
The Irish tradition of celebrating the Celtic Samhain Festival continued a little longer than in England; again, root vegetables were carved out, with candles inside to represent faces.
 
In Wales, the tradition does not seem to have been half so riotous – or fun! Along with the vegetable lantern-carving, common to other residents of the British Isles, the Welsh built Hallowe’en fires, but the celebration was rather sombre: each of the family wrote their name on a white stone, which was then thrown into the fire, before they walked around the flames, praying for good fortune. The following morning, each member of the family sifted through the ashes, searching for their stones. If any stone was missing, it was believed that the spirits would call upon the soul of that person during the coming year.
 
These days we are far more likely to be found carving pumpkins (originally native to North America), instead of the traditional (and far tougher!) turnip or beet. If you want to try your hand at Pumpkin Carving then come along the Chirk Castle until Sunday 30 October. Pumpkins are £3 each, and are ready scooped out. For more details see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chirk-castle/whats-on