The Halloween phenomenon

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by Heather Elvidge

The days are short and sunset seems to happen too soon; it always takes us by surprise when the clocks go back.

The sudden change is a challenge to our biological clock. Although it’s only one hour, we need a couple of weeks to adjust. Perhaps that’s why Halloween has taken off. Partying in the face of gloom boosts our mood.

The Halloween phenomenon – it’s hugely important for retailers – is relatively recent. Halloween fun 1950s-style meant a Guy Fawkes mask and a turnip lantern. The only costume option was a ghost – an old white sheet with holes cut for eyes. South of the Humber, nobody bothered with Halloween at all.

So where did it all come from, the ghost walks, the fancy-dress parties, the tonnes of innocent pumpkins put to the knife?


The light half of the year is ending and the dark, cold months are just beginning. For our ancestors this was a dangerous moment when bonfires and torches were deployed against supernatural forces.

There’s no record of a pagan festival in England, but like other farming communities the Saxons slaughtered surplus cattle before the winter. The ancient Irish festival was Samhaine, a gathering of tribes held to mark the end of the farming year. Pagan Scandinavians held a festival called Winter Nights, when each farmer put on a feast and made an animal sacrifice. Irish and Scandinavian immigrants took their customs to Scotland where, by some mysterious process, Halloween emerged centuries later.

In Christian England October 31 was simply the eve of All Saints’ Day, when church bells were rung. Bells tolled again on November 2, All Souls, calling the faithful to pray for the souls of family and friends.

Prayers to help the dead leave Purgatory, and the idea of saints as intercessors, didn’t survive the Reformation. At least not officially — unable to give up their beliefs, some Christians continued to pray for the souls of their dear departed, and help them by giving alms to the poor.

Old customs met renewed interest in the nineteenth century. And so, through the work of folklore collectors and popular writers Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, knowledge of the Scottish Halloween arrived in Victorian England.

Meanwhile, the Highland clearances and Irish famine sent huge numbers of settlers to North America. There Halloween traditions were sharpened and polished, until American films and cartoons brought them back here.

The Victorians were fascinated by love divination, which came in many forms. Couples would place two nuts on the fire grate, to see if they would pop – this was a good sign for their relationship. Girls put a sprig of rosemary or a crooked sixpence under their pillow, to bring dreams of a future spouse. Then there were games. Some, such as apple bobbing, are still popular today.

The real surprise of the modern Halloween is the rise of trick-or-treating. While children’s visiting customs like this were common a century ago, they had all but vanished. Now juvenile Grim Reapers, witches, and Frankensteins knock on our doors expecting money or sweets. They carry pumpkin lanterns instead of swedes or mangel-wurzels.

Happy Halloween...