By Julia Purdy
On October 31 in small-town England, fireworks and the fires of Bonfire Night will blend their smoke with the thick autumn mists that drift across a moonlit sky. Families will stream through the dimly-lit streets, energized by the cold air and the excitement of the festival. It’s All Hallows Eve! In ancient times this was the eve of Samhain (pronounced SOW-en), both Summer’s End and the eve of the Celtic new year, which was measured from dark season to dark season. The year was “swinging on its hinges,” and the veil between seen and unseen worlds was at its thinnest.
The latitude of Manchester, England, places it well north of Presque Isle, Maine, making autumn nights descend early and swiftly. The English say the dark is “drawing in,” shroud-like. The arrival of the dark season and the natural processes of dormancy and decay turned the early agrarian folks’ thoughts to death and life-after-death. The departed were seen as still taking an interest in the living, making themselves known in various ways. They might return home through doors left open to eat and drink the food left on the table. In Scotland, if a special spell were to be recited in a “faery place,” those snatched by the faery folk would be returned to the realm of the living.
Why the final day of October?
All Saints Day was first celebrated on May 1 and originated in the 8th century, when Pope Boniface IV replaced the pagan Roman pantheon with the worship of Mary and all the martyrs (all-saints), and the catacombs were opened for the living to visit the departed and to pray for souls in Purgatory. In Protestant England, the observance was moved to Nov. 1 as All Hallows Day, preceded by the All Hallows Eve (Hallowe’en) vigil.
This is also the season of harvest. The burning of the harvest refuse and the spreading of nutrient-rich ashes are, of course, the ecological function of the Samhain bonfire, and the only sure step to guarantee the success of the next season’s crops. But the great bonfires that lit the night from hilltop to hilltop can also be viewed as a last defense against the inevitable darkness.
As Christianity gradually took hold, the bonfires continued to be lighted, but now to release souls from Purgatory as well as drive away “witches” (evil spirits) who might threaten the crops. Well into Victorian times, witch effigies were burned and rowan switches cut to “protect from witches,” with appropriate tales to back up the belief. It is said that in Scotland boys still beg house to house for “peat to burn the witches.”
As with Christmas wassailing, this was a time when begging door to door served the function of redistributing wealth. In Britain, “souling” was practiced the first two weeks in November, during which prayers were said for departed souls and the poor begged for “soul-gifts” of souling cakes and ale. Its American descendant is the custom of “trick-or-treat.” The Halloween costume may have originated with the All-Hallows guisers of Scotland and northern England, in which men dressed as supernatural beings with blackened faces, evoking the Druids of old.
The ease of access to the denizens of the unseen world made All Hallows/Samhain a special time of divination.
Hempseed I sow
Hempseed I throw
Let him who be my true love
Come after me and mow.
Many customs used the fruits of the season. On “nutcrack night” young people tossed hazelnuts into the burning hearth. If the nut cracked open, a wish would be fulfilled; if it burned, a lover would be untrue—or the other way around. Apple pips were used the same way: “If he loves me, pop and fly—if he hates me, lie and die!” Children would bob for apples, then peel them and throw the peelings over the left shoulder, so they might read the initial of their true love in the peels.
The tiny Somerset village of Hinton St. George claims credit for inventing the jack o’lantern. In 1840, as the story goes, the women were worried that their men had stayed out too late drinking at the fair—and the men had all the lanterns! Anxious about evil spirits abroad, women mounted a search party, resourcefully using hollowed-out, giant field beets as lanterns. Today, Hinton St. George celebrates “Punkie Night” with costumes and carved pumpkins or beets.
There was also the ancient, widespread practice of blood sacrifice, to ensure the fertility of the soil and encourage the sun to return,which it did at the Winter Solstice around Dec. 21. The preserved remains of ritually killed men, women and children—the Iron Age “bog people”—have been discovered burned in bogs in Northern Europe and Britain.
In England, the seasonal sacrifice and harvest bonfires merged under the banner of religious persecution. The Lewes Bonfire in East Sussex, today an extravaganza of flaming crosses and fireworks that commemorates the burning at the stake of “heretics” during the Tudor monarchies, is held on Nov. 5, even though the burnings were carried out year-round in many locations.
But it is “Guy Fawkes Night” that has perhaps captured the public imagination most.
A pro-Spain Catholic, Guy Fawkes led the “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up the Parliament buildings in 1605 and was hanged for his effort, with great fanfare. An act of Parliament then decreed Nov. 5 to be an anti-Catholic Guy Fawkes Night, during which he was burned everywhere in effigy. A popular jingle of the time ran:
A rope, a rope to hang the Pope,
A piece of cheese to choke him,
A barrel of beer to drink his health,
And a right good fire to roast him!”
Today, the celebration has merged with Bonfire Night into a major attraction, with the skies above London exploding in fireworks, torchlight parades, Guy Fawkes masks for sale, and a giant, high-hatted effigy burning on a cross. In the villages children roam the streets asking for “a penny for the Guy”—who might be a teddy bear in a baby stroller. Guy Fawkes even has a distant relative in America: the harvest figures that slouch on our porches and against fenceposts!
Guy = guisers = disguise . . . Is the linguistic sequence merely coincidence? Or are the Halloween guisers of today—the pint-sized “pumpkins,” “tramps,” or “princesses” that squeak out “Trick-or-treat!” on American doorsteps—unknowingly observing the traditions of the ancient Samhain?