A (very) brief history of Halloween

This wyrd weekend is upon us. The veil is thin to fraying and our ancestors walk amongst us. Let the countdown to the witching hour commence!

Having children and all we’re all in with the the costumes and trick and treating. The costumes are all picked out, the house decorated and the scary voice app installed on the phone. Its all part of the fun, right?

Some people get very caught up in the ‘respect my holiday’ mindset at this time of year; resenting the money making element and the Hollywood Horror images that dominate the season. Their attention concentrates on the ancestor worship aspect of Samhain, which plays an part in the season no doubt, but they overlook the way the traditions around last harvest have developed over thousands of years and fail to appreciate the folk traditions that are recognised in the refrain “Trick or Treat?”

Most of the traditions around Halloween find their origins in medieval Christianity. That’s not just the dressing up and trick or treating but the honouring of the ancestors as well because prior to the advent of Catholic Christianity in Britain Halloween had less to do with the dead and more to do with the ending of the summer season and final preperations for the coming winter.

When I think of ancestor worship I think of the Winter Solstice. Largely this is because of personal reasons but through recent reinterpretation of ancient monuments it is become increasingly evident that this was also true of our Neolithic ancestors. It isn’t until later times, the Iron Age in fact, that we become aware of a native tradition around late October in conjunction with the final harvest of meats and dried goods and the  onset of winter itself.


Wicker Man

Through the eyes of the observing Roman, and temporally removed and equally biased monastics of the early centuries AD, what we know about these observationsis horrific. The towering Wicker Man filled with human sacrifices/criminals is burned within the cultural consciousness as a defining image of pre Roman Britain. But how realistic is this image? The sourced are hardly impartial and it is possible (read likely) that it is exaggerated for effect.

So what of the elements of the Wicker Man and criminals? The burning of the straw man is similar to the death of John Barleycorn. The symbolism is of summers death, which is consistent with the meaning of Samhain which is Summers End, and of winters triumph. It represents a final gathering, both of produce and people, before winter makes travel impossible. The settling of debts and disputes took place at this time, and this is where the criminals come in. Where or not crimes punishable by capital punishment were included it is more reasonable to assume that most of the issues addressed centred around redressing personal insults and those niggly debts, such as ‘that pig you owe me’, in preparation for the winter ahead. That the Gods would bare witness to such things, and require redress in the form of offerings is understandable.

The processes involved in the following Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon ages were probably similar on a folk levels but this is when the filter of Christianity comes into play.


The Wonders of the Invisible World

This is where the spooky comes in. The Roman and early Christian sources stress the involvement of the Gods in these events. This is the time the ‘pagan’ God’s walked the land searching for their rightful sacrifice. This would scare the pants off any devout Christian, particularly as time marches towards the medieval ages but a plan was made! Because there were many saints in the Catholic cannon, too many to ascribe individual holy days to, the catch all of All Saints Day was added to the calendar. What better event to offset the day of horror and ancient Gods which was now to be refered to as All Hallows Eve?

It’s now that we begin to see the elements of tradition that we recognise today. People would gift ‘soul cakes’ to the church in exchange for requiem mass to be said for the souls of their loved ones on the holy day of All Saints. As time went on the church encourage its flock to gift these cakes to the less fortunate on All Hallows Eve in return for these prayers. The only snag? The ‘less fortunate’ would need to go to the home of the wealthier parishioners to claim the treat of the soul cake and who in their right mind wanders the streets when they are stalked by the Old Ones, or even Old Horny himself?

Enter the tradition of dressing up. Costumes served a dual purpose. Firstly it hids the face of the participant from the world of spirit, maybe even scaring them away in the process. Secondly they also hid the face from the unsuspecting resident, especially those who were too miserly to dish out the treats. Will you give us a treat or should we play a trick?

Now before I go any further I want to make a personal observation. Those who call insult regarding dressing up and trick or treating, yet at the same time demand the  preservation the traditions of worship the ancestors, overlook an important fact.  Both practices come from exactly as the same source; the Catholic Church. Whilst the donning of costumes in earlier ‘Pagan’ ages did occur there is nothing to link this practice with Halloween, a word which didn’t exist until the medieval time. The practices described around Samhain do not match an interpretation consistent with the donning of costumes. Whilst absence of evidence is not evidence of absence it makes it very hard to argue definitively that it did happen. Equally we do not have evidence for the veneration of the ancestors at this time.

These are much later elements brought in by the Catholic Church and which have continued in an almost unbroken tradition. Even though the Protestant Church established its supremacy over the Catholic Church these traditions were never truly abandoned. They had become intertwined with folk tradition which preserved them. It seems inconsistent to me to adopt one whilst vehemently rejecting the other.

A little food for thought.


Medieval Halloween

That’s not to say I’m a fan of all the commercialism, I see some people who go nuts for all the decorations and paying right into the marketing mans pocket but it’s their money, not mine, and the kids enjoy themselves.  I do think we have America to thank for much of the hype though, with them taking the traditional elements of the ‘Old World’ and ramping them up to claim them as their own. In the past 20 years the way that the occasion is marked has changed in the UK, becoming more and more in keeping with extravagant events of our cousins over the pond, but those traditional medieval elements remain true.

I think its important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and be realistic about the origins of not only the secular practices around this time of year but our modern Pagan ones as well. Denying one element of medieval tradition whilst whole heartedly accepting the other is short sighted, especially given just how much of modern paganism is a made up of folk traditions which are a blend of ancient paganism and Christianity in themselves.

Besides which, what better way to show off a little of the witchcraft inside us by glamming up for the occasion?

As a family we walk the fine line. We keep the traditions of trick or treating and eating sweets until we are sick whilst also talking about our beloved dead. We also clear out the garden ahead of winters inactivity and get as much of the DIY and major housework out of the way whilst there is still a reasonable amount of daylight. Whilst the OH has used the school holidays to make  household repairs I have been making Fire Cider. I learned two lessons in the process;

1) don’t over pack the jar
2) DO NOT over pack the jar!

3-6 weeks to infuse and then I can try it out but in the meantime I’m going to use up my four thieves vinegar and try fend off any more winter bugs the kids may bring home. I had thought that I had blogged all about Four Thieves Vinegar last year but I can’t find the evidence so watch this space because this preperation is so versatile I do need to share it.

So, Dear Reader, whether you are dressing up and living loud or having a silent supper with your family and friends, have a blessed Hallowtide.

Wicker Man -Time Team 2006
Wonders of the Invisible World (1689) by Mathers
Medieval Halloween by Snartea

Links of Interest
Halloween in Medieval Times
History of Halloween


About knotmagick

Weaving Magick and Crochet in the madhouse I call home. I am a devotee of Hekate and a follower of Pan.
This entry was posted in History, Rant, Witchcraft and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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