Halloween, a pagan holiday in Cambridgeshire

Halloween (or Hallowe’en, a shortening of Hallowed Evening, or the night before All Hallows’ Day) is now celebrated across Cambridgeshire to some extent – much depends on the village or the town’s desire to embrace a commercialized, but fun for the children, evening.  In my local village, a anecdotal guess would be one out of four homes are open for trick-or-treaters – the wonderfully dressed children heading around in the dark looking for candy.  In many ways Halloween is an English invention, born out of our pagan past in the Romanticism of the 19th Century, adopted and commercialized by the United States in the 20th Century, and now celebrated in England.  This is an echo of an echo, for what we now see across the shires reflects more of America’s influence than our own English past.  Where did Halloween come from?

Samhain was a Gaelic festival celebrating the end of the harvest and the beginning of the “darker” half of the year, traditionally celebrated across Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Brittany.  A Celtic day began at sundown and Samhain would begin at sunset on 31 October and continue into the first of November.  This date is midway between the winter solstice and the autumnal equinox, and the importance of it to the Celts can be seen in many Neolithic monuments oriented so that the rising sun on Samhain would shine on an opening or portal to a burial mound during the festival.

Many of our Halloween customs have come down from this event – it was a Celtic leminal time, where spirits and faeries from other worlds could cross over into our own, when bonfires were lit , and food and drink where left outside to satiate the spirits so that people and livestock would be left alone and survive the oncoming winter.  There are echoes of our own customs here, but the Samhain festival would be Christianized in the Middle Ages and developed across the British Isles.

Soulcakes, the traditional treat given to children in England on Halloween, these are a descendent of Samhain gifts left outdoors for spirits.  Notice the traditional Christian iconography of the cross. From Samantha, Haarlem, the Netherlands, in Wikimedia commons.

Soulcakes, the traditional treat given to children in England on Halloween, these are a descendent of Samhain gifts left outdoors for spirits. Notice the traditional Christian iconography of the cross. From Samantha, Haarlem, the Netherlands, in Wikimedia commons.

The Catholic Church celebrated All Saints Day on 1 November, followed by All Souls Day on 2 November.  These two festivals of the church were blended into All Hallows’ Tide, the three day feast celebrating the dead saints, martyrs, and faithful which began on 1 November.  It wasn’t a wild leap for the church to build on the Celtic customs observed across northern France and the British Isles, incorporating Samhain into a more Christianized feast.  Interestingly, it was the descendents of Celts, the Scottish and Irish immigrants to the United States in the 19th Century that brought the celebration of Halloween to the New World – with many of its more pagan aspects expanded and grew.  In England, “souling” or “guising”, dressing up and seeking out sweet cakes from the wealthy in exchange for praying for the dead, had existed from the Middle Ages.

Souling_on_Halloween

A postcard from 1882 showing dressed up or “souling” children seeking sweetcakes from wealthy townsmen in an English village. Titled “Souling on Halloween” by Mary Mapes Dodge, originally published in: “St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks”, Scribner & Company, December 1882. In the public domain.

During the Romanticism of the 19th Century, Halloween was expanded and discussed across England, as fascination with Celtic mythology and druidism increased and a general rejection of Catholic feasts permeated British life.  It was in the 20th Century that jack-o’-lanterns appeared, an effort to scare off evil spirits roaming through the night, building on carved gourds and vegetables seen in Ireland and Scotland.

In recent decades, the commercialization of this ancient holiday has spread across Cambridgeshire, brought back to England from a more enveloping American culture.  The history of Halloween; however, reaches back into a pagan, pre-Christian Britain, when fear of spirits, faeries, and the dark, hungry times of winter were ubiquitous in our daily lives.

 

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