The orchards are spent and the leaves are falling. The wind whispers from the north and darkness approaches in the cycle of life and land. The earth hails the approaching winter whereupon it will sleep beneath a layer of snow until the season of rebirth. During this ‘dying of the land’ the sunlight diminishes and the veil between the ‘world of the living’ and the ‘world of the dead’ grows thinner with each night.
In order to protect themselves against the coming winter and its devastations, villagers celebrate the feast of Samhain (summer’s end), the last harvest.
In the Middle Ages people were well aware that their livelihood depended on the land. The Gaelic calendar recognised this with four main festivals, Imbolc (spring), Beltane (summer), Lughnasadh (harvest season also known as Lammas), and Samhain (the onset of winter). Cattle were brought down from the summer pastures for slaughter and great bonfires were lit for the rituals of cleansing and protection.
It was also seen as a time when the spirits or fairies could enter the human world on All Hallows Eve – cross over to visit the living or perhaps, wreak havoc.
The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their homes and feasts were held where the ancestors were beckoned to a place set at the table just for them.
Eventually there arose the custom of the living dressing up in disguise so that they could not be distinguished from the dead and have their souls snatched prematurely.
As Christianity took over the pagan beliefs, Pope Gregory I issued an edict (601 AD) to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples’ customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.
In the 9th century, the Roman Catholic Church shifted the date of All Saints Day to November 1st, while November 2nd became All Souls Day (for the souls awaiting full sanctification and moral perfection in Purgatory so they may gain entrance into Heaven) in line with the Celtic tradition of Samhain. The Triduum of All Hallows being Samhain or All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day was known as Hallowmas but eventually became just Halloween (Oct 31).
The feasting was a typical medieval event, much food, drink, games and fraternising.
One game played at Samhain called for a noble at the high table to be disguised as King Crispin. Dressed in magnificent robes, crowned and flourishing a sceptre, he wears a heavy chain around his neck. Attached is a large medallion with the design of one big boot. King Crispin, (really Saint Crispin) is the patron saint of Cordwainers – cobblers, tanners and leatherwork (Cordwain or Cordovan leather from Spain). Since Saint Crispin’s Day is only a few days beforehand (Oct 25th – also linked with the battle of Azincourt 1415) the two were often combined.
Seven people who will be the ‘soulers’ have their masks ready (note the use of the Templar number seven). At some point during the evening, the soulers will put on their masks and, carrying a small basket, set out to collect soul cakes. Walking briskly though the hall, the soulers will chant:
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.
If you haven’t got a cake, an apple will do,
If you haven’t got an apple, give a pear or two,
If you haven’t got a pear, then God bless you.
Soulers, still chanting, approach guests with much hilarity to collect gifts and everyone offers their soul cake, (a flat, oval cake with currants, cinnamon and nutmeg) or a piece of fruit. The soulers threaten punishment to those who do not contribute. One can imagine how, after several hours of ale-drinking, the evening would become! Eventually the seven baskets are set beneath the bonfire candelabrum for alms distribution.
As this was the time of year for divination, another game played was ‘Apple Bobbing.’ Each apple bobbed for was given the name of a desired mate. If the bobber succeeded in biting the apple on the first try, then his/her love would thrive. If the apple was caught on the second try, love would exist only briefly. Success on the third chance meant hate and four tries or more meant no luck with that person; name another.
The game dates back to when the Romans conquered Britain. bringing with them the apple tree, a representation of the goddess of fruit trees, Pomona. The combination of Pomona, a fertility goddess, and the Celts’ belief that the pentagram was a fertility symbol began the origins of bobbing for apples. When an apple is sliced in half, the seeds form a pentagram-like shape, and it is thought that the manifestation of such a symbol meant that the apple could be used to determine marriages during this time of year.
Here then are some of the ancient customs from which our modern day Halloween celebration has sprung; the dressing up, bobbing for apples and asking for candies in a basket (in place of soul cakes).