With October 31st fast approaching, we take a look at the history and traditions of Hallowe’en.
What’s it all about?
Hallowe’en is the date on which witches and other supernatural beings are thought to be at their most active, and the festival has a number of different origins.
All Hallows’ Eve
The day after Hallowe’en, November 1st, has been an important calendar date for thousands of years, as it was made a church holiday in 835AD to honour all the saints, and thus became known as All Saints or All Hallows Day. In Medieval times, it was customary to pray for the dead on this day, and certain countries such as Mexico celebrate their own version of Hallowe’en, El Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead, on November 2nd.
As the day before All Hallows Day, the 31st October became known as All Hallows Eve, corrupted to Hallowe’en.
The Celts already had their own festival on this date, known as Samhain (pronounced ‘Sow-inn’), which they believed marked the end of the old year and the start of the new one. According to Celtic belief, during the winter, the long dark nights weakened the barriers between our world and the spirit world, and supernatural beings were most likely to be seen during this time. They would also build bonfires to drive the evil spirits away, and this pagan custom was later moved to November 5th with its association with the Gunpowder Plot.
After the Roman invasion of Britain, the Hallowe’en became mixed with the Roman festival honouring Pomona, goddess of fruits and trees, which may be one of the reasons that we still play bobbing for apples at this time of year. Samhain was a principal feast day, and traditional foods included colcannon (a mixture of potatoes and cabbage), apple cake, pancakes and nuts.
Many people still make Jack-o-Lanterns, or pumpkin lanterns, for Hallowe’en. These are made by hollowing out a pumpkin, carving a face into the side and placing a lit candle inside. Placed outside a house, they’re supposed to scare away evil spirits.
A traditional game at Hallowe’en is apple bobbing, where contestants remove apples from large basins of water using only their teeth. This is much harder than it sounds, and generally results in widespread watery mayhem!
It’s also traditional to dress up at Hallowe’en, and particularly to wear a mask. This stems from the belief that any ghosts or evil spirits you encountered would not recognise you as human if you were suitably disguised.
Trick or treating probably stems from the old custom of ‘mischief night’, originally held on November 4th in some parts of the country, and a day when children would play practical jokes which particularly involved moving things around.
At the Swettenham Arms, we’re proud to have our very own ghost, a nun called Sarah. You can find out more about her on our history page.
We think that makes us ideally qualified to hold a great Hallowe’en party, and on Thursday 31st October that’s exactly what we’ll be doing, starting at 6.30pm with our now-famous Ghost Walk . Do come along and join in all the spooky fun – we’d love to see you there. Look at our events page for more details.