With Halloween fast approaching, with its costume parties and trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving and $6+ million dollar business, maybe it’s a good time to review the history of the celebration and return emphasis to its more hallowed roots, both Christian and pre-Christian.
The image above is of “mummers,” revelers who dressed in costumes for parades and merry-making on holidays such as Allhallowtide in medieval Britain. Allhallowtide was a three-day period in the church year dedicated to remembering the dead, celebrated on October 31 (All Hallows’ Eve), All Saints’ Day (November 1, dedicated to saints and martyrs), and November 2 (All Souls Day, dedicated to all the faithful departed). The word Halloween itself, which dates to about 1745, comes from “All Hallows Eve,” the evening before All Saints Day; “Hallow” comes from the Old English halgena, for “holy” or “saint,” and “een” is a contraction of the Scottish term even, for "eve" or “evening.”
During Allhallowtide celebrations in the British Isles from the Middle Ages through the 1930s, children and the poor would parade in costumes or go door to door singing for “soul cakes,” small round spice cakes topped with a cross, in exchange for prayers and wishes.
Here is a version of the song first collected in 1891:
A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him who made us all.
God bless the master of this house,
The misteress also,
And all the little children
That round your table grow.
Likewise young men and maidens,
Your cattle and your store ;
And all that dwells within your gates,
We wish you ten times more.
Down into the cellar,
And see what you can find,
If the barrels are not empty,
We hope you will prove kind.
We hope you will prove kind,
With your apples and strong beer,
And we'll come no more a-souling
Till this time next year.
The lanes are very dirty,
My shoes are very thin,
I've got a little pocket
To put a penny in.
If you haven't got a penny,
A ha'penny will do ;
If you haven't get a ha'penny,
It's God bless you.
The medieval practice of remembering the dead and celebrating in costume with sweets and apples originates in the pre-Christian Celtic and early Roman days in the British Isles. The ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in and meaning “summer’s end”) on November 1st marked the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. On the night before Samhain, when it was believed that the boundaries between the living and the dead were blurred and the souls of the dead roamed the earth, Celtic priests or druids built bonfires as symbolic protection against the coming dark and cold, and wore masks to avoid being recognized and taken over by the wandering spirits. The villagers left gourds and turnips carved with grotesque faces outside their doors to ward off evil spirits, and brought embers from the sacred bonfire to relight their home hearths for the new year.
Following the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 CE, two Roman festivals eventually fused with the Celtic traditions: the late October Feralia, a celebration of the passing of the dead; and an autumn festival honoring Pomona, goddess of fruit and trees, with feast tables adorned with nuts and apples. Over the next few centuries, the spread of Christianity and the official movement of the celebration of All Saints Day in 865 CE from May to November 1 helped merge the ancient Celtic and Roman-Celtic autumn festivals with Christian celebrations.
In America, the first celebrations of Halloween--rather limited in Puritan New England but fairly common in the southern colonies--included “play parties,” or public festivities celebrating the harvest where neighbors shared stories of the dead (including ghost stories), told fortunes, danced and sang and generally engaged in mischief-making of all kinds. By the 19th century, annual autumn festivals--including the carving of “jack-o-lanterns,” pumpkins or other squashes lit from within by candles, and the practices of bobbing for apples and the “reading” of apple peals to determine the initials of a future husband--were common but not always associated with Halloween.
After 1846, the influx of Irish immigrants fleeing Ireland’s potato famine helped popularize the holiday, and Americans across the nation began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money. By the early 1900s, Halloween parties with games, foods and festive costumes for both children and adults returned Halloween to its roots in community celebration; and by the twentieth century, Halloween had become a secular, community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties. Between 1920 and 1950, the practice of trick-or-treating was revived as an easy way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration.
By the 1950s, vandalism began to plague the community-wide celebrations, and the holiday became directed mainly at the young, with parties moved into the home and classroom. In recent years, both door-to-door trick-or-treating by children and children’s parties hosted by civic and commercial establishments are once again in vogue. Costume parties for adults are also fashionable again, with urban retail areas sometimes overwhelmed by wild revelers.
Today, although we may deplore the secular, commercialized aspects of Halloween, we can still enjoy the communal spirit Halloween serves. Remembering Halloween’s original roots in the Celtic celebration of life’s great mysteries can reward us with remembrance of the centrality of the cycle of death and life in our own lives. Recalling the holiday’s Christian emphasis on caring for souls can return us to being “soulers” as well, remembering loved ones now lost and caring for those in need still among us.
In “A-Souling,” the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary sing a later version of the Allhallowtide song, which merges Halloween soul cakes with the birth of Christ, reminding us that wholeness is possible in this broken world: click here.