‘Strange Customs’ – Exploring the Ancient Origins and Traditions of Halloween – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

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‘Strange Customs’ – Exploring the Ancient Origins and Traditions of Halloween

Nowadays, we tend to think of Halloween as a thoroughly modern phenomenon, an American Hallmark holiday. But using newspapers from the Victorian era, accessed through The Archive, we will discover in this blog how Halloween is a thoroughly ancient phenomenon.

The Graphic | 13 May 1911

We will look at the ancient origins of the October festival, and explore its traditions, some of which have lasted through to this day, like bobbing for apples, and others that have fallen by the wayside, for example the day’s former emphasis on matchmaking. We shall also examine Victorian attitudes to Halloween, and how it represented for many nostalgia for past times.

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‘How it Gladdens the Heart’

In 1851, Northern Irish newspaper the Coleraine Chronicle published a series of original poetry under the title ‘Songs for the Season.’ The first poem of the collection was entitled ‘Gay Halloween,’ and its first verse runs as follows:

Hallowe’en! How it gladdens the heart and the brain
To see the old festival coming again!
Like hope to the heart that affliction has bow’d-
Like rainbow o’er arching the gloom of the cloud,-
Like a vision – it comes to console us with mirth
Has exorcised care from the bosom of the earth;
And pleasure and joy, like twin-angels, are seen,
Descending to gladden and cheer Hallowe’en! 

Coleraine Chronicle | 8 November 1851

The excitement in this stanza for the festival is palpable, and contains none of the spookiness that we are so familiar with today. Indeed, Halloween is seen to be filled with ‘pleasure and joy,’ and this sentiment is echoed by a writer for the Orkney Herald, and Weekly Advertiser in November 1863, in an article entitled ‘Auld Halloween Time:’

Halloween! In the days of my boyhood there was magic in the name. Long before the day arrived we hoarded up all the apples, turnips, and cabbage-stocks we could either steal or beg. It was impossible to sleep on the night preceding the auspicious eve…There was excitement on every face – mischief brewing in every heart.

The writer, who purports now to be an old man, looks back at a time long ago when Halloween was celebrated with the same eagerness and glee we see in the Coleraine Chronicle poem. Because by this time, and the end of the Victorian era, Halloween was seen to be falling from fashion, an old festival remembered only by the old.

Indeed, the Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette in 1888 notes how ‘the popularity of the ancient festival of Hallowe’en is getting less every year,’ whilst by 1895 the Banffshire Reporter describes how ‘There are not many now-a-days who take any notice of Hallowmas Eve.’

Hallowe’en By John Collier | The Graphic | 7 November 1896

But this is in contrast, as the Banffshire Reporter relates, with how in ‘olden it times it was one of the most popular and generally observed [festivals] in all parts of the Kingdom,’ when ‘unmarried maidens,’ most particularly, would ‘anxiously look forward to’ the last day of October.

So why was Halloween in days gone by so popular? How and why was it celebrated? We delved further into the pages of our newspapers to find out more.

‘So Many and Such Strange Customs’

In November 1862 the Newry Telegraph described the festival of Halloween as follows:

All-hallow Even, or, Hallowe’en, the last night of the month of October, is the vigil of All Saints’ Day – a festival held on the 1st of November by the Church of Rome as a general commemoration of the saints, having been introduced into Italy in the ninth century by Pope Boniface IV, and soon afterwards adopted in other churches.

But the origins of Halloween predate Christianity, the Newcastle Courant in 1877 noting how ‘So ancient is the celebration of Halloweve that its origin is lost in the mists of antiquity.’ Meanwhile the London Evening Standard in 1878 has it that the practice ‘is a perpetuation of a similar one observed at the ancient Athenian festival of Anthesteria,’ a season ‘chosen…for the consultation of omens.’

Indeed, the origins of Halloween are truly pagan, and devolved from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, in which the end of the year was marked, the new year beginning on 1 November. And on the eve of the new year, it was the Celtic belief that the boundaries between the living and the dead were blurred, with ghosts returning to walk the earth.

Ghosts walk the night in Brittany by F. De Haenen | The Graphic | 5 November 1910

So no wonder the Newcastle Courant describes the Halloween festival as ‘decidedly uncanny and superstitious.’ It existed so far beyond the organised Christianity of the tenth century, and the saints festival inaugurated by Pope Boniface IV, although perhaps this was some sort of concession to the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain.

But Christianity did not exorcize Halloween, as the festival came to be known, the Newcastle Courant in 1892 relating how:

Popular superstition has given the thirty-first day of October a peculiar character of its own, no other day of the year having so many and such strange customs attached to it. Witches, devils, fairies, and disembodied spirits walk abroad on that night; charms and divinations attain their highest success with all and any who wish to try them.

And the customs attached to Halloween, as the same newspaper tells in 1877, were of a ‘sportive and superstitious kind,’ and it is the latter type, which were ‘analogous to the divinations of the ancients by omens and portents,’ which have largely fallen away in the modern era.

Fates and the Future

We return to our ‘unmarried maidens,’ as so dubbed by the Banffshire Reporter, who used to so look forward to the night of Halloween. For the ancient festival of Halloween was a night that allowed young unmarried people to try and glimpse beyond the veil and see their futures, particularly their romantic futures, and there were many methods by which they could do this.

The Witches’ Frolic by A.E. Bestall | The Tatler | 23 September 1936

In ancient times, the Banffshire Reporter relates how it was common ‘for a girl to venture out alone…to consult the Fates as to her future.’ And this tradition survived in different ways up until the Victorian era. Indeed, many of the ancient traditions of Halloween revolve around foretelling the future, using apples, nuts, kale and more, and here we run through some of the most popular Halloween ‘matchmaking’ rituals.

But before that, the Falkirk Herald in October 1870 gives a warning to those trying to see their futures on Halloween, in an article entitled ‘A Halloween Incident.’ It tells the story of one Peggy Waldrop, from about eighty years before. Peggy, ‘a rural lass of twenty,’ had opened her Bible  on Halloween night at the Book of Job, and:

…having looked over the verse containing this sentence, ‘who is he that will strike hands with me?’ took the barn-door key and laid the open handle over the passage, closed the book, laid it under her pillow, and went to sleep, fully expecting to see in a dream the man destined to be her husband come to her bedside, hold out his hand, and invite her to strike hands with him.

A girl uses a mirror at Halloween to tell her future | The Queen | 30 October 1886

Peggy was trying to conjure up her future husband, but all did not go well for her:

Poor Peggy’s wish was realised, and she did dream, but of what or whom? She dreamed that the spirit of evil in his awful form came to her, and holding out a hand that burnt like live coal, demanded to strike hands with her, and that being done she was his forever. 

When Peggy woke up with a scream, she alerted the ‘whole household,’ and she was insensible. ‘She recognised no one,’ and ‘never recovered her senses again,’ her family managing to divine what had happened by her ‘incoherent ravings.’

This was a warning, perhaps, to Victorian girls who may have wanted to dabble in the occult, but despite the story of the unfortunate Peggy, matchmaking and love omens were at the heart of Halloween traditions.

‘Nutcrack Night’

In October 1878 the London Evening Standard notes how in the ‘North of England many superstitions still linger on, and Hallowe’en enjoys the popular name of ‘Nutcrack Night.” Nuts were cracked and eaten, and were used for ‘divining love affairs.’

In November 1862 the Newry Telegraph describes the practice of burning nuts, which ‘seems to be a very general custom in the British Isles,’ and is described by Scottish poet Robert Burns as a favourite charm from his day:

…they name the lad and lass to each particular nut, as they lay them in the fire, and accordingly as they burn quietly together or start from beside one another, the course and issue of the courtship will be.

The Queen | 30 October 1886

But our older man, writing for the Orkney Herald in 1863, describes his disdain for the courtship tradition, being too young perhaps to appreciate it:

 …the ‘lads and lasses’ usually began to drop in to burn their nuts; and we youngsters looking upon such tomfoolery as either above our comprehension, or beneath our contempt, hurried without doors to commence in earnest the genuine operations of the evening.

Apples and Mirrors

‘Apples are used in several ways on Hallowe’en,’ notes the Newcastle Courant in 1892, and whilst they were used ‘sportively’ (more on that later), they were also used to forecast relationships. This is from the Newry Telegraph:

Another trial of the fidelity of lovers is made on these occasions by young girls sticking an apple-kernel on each cheek; the first that falls proclaims the unfaithlessness of him whose name bears it. An apple-paring thrown over the left shoulder is supposed to indicate the initial of the successful lover’s name.

Gentlewoman | 31 October 1891

Meanwhile, Robert Burns described a practice of a ‘wilder and more superstitious nature,’ as relates the Newcastle Courant in 1877, which was to:

…to eat an apple before the looking-glass, when it is said that the girl who does so will see her future husband peeping over her shoulder.

‘Peeping into the Future – A Hallowe’en Custom’ by J.R. Skelton | The Graphic | 5 November 1910

Another Halloween custom Burns describes was the use of saucers, again used to try and ascertain the future:

 Take three saucers; fill one with clean water, one with inky or foul water, and leave one empty. Blindfold a person and lead him to the dishes, where he dips his left hand into one of the three. If by chance he touches the clean water he will marry a maid; the black water a widow; and the empty dish signifies that he will live and die a bachelor.

Pulling Kale

A particularly Scottish Halloween tradition was the pulling of kale, indeed the Newcastle Courant in 1892 describes it as the ‘first ceremony of’ Halloween in that particular country. It relates how the ceremony was performed by young people, whereby:

Each must pull the first stalk he comes to in the garden. Its being big or little, short or tall, straight or crooked, will foretell the size, shape, and height of the future husband or wife. The amount of earth that clings to the root will indicate the fortune or dowry.

The Newry Telegraph in 1862 elaborates on this ritual, which was performed ‘hand-in-hand, with eyes shut.’ The taste of the stem, meanwhile, would be ‘indicative of the natural temper and disposition’ of a future marital partner.

Catching and Ducking for Apples

But there were other traditions on Halloween that were unrelated to matchmaking, and these were the more ‘sportive’ elements of the festival. Ducking for apples, or apple bobbing, is one feature of the festival that we are perhaps more familiar with today, and it is described with glee in the Orkney Herald:

The proceedings of the evening commenced with the tub and apples…The ‘dooking’ went on vigorously and with much uproarious mirth until the floor was flooded, and then the old folks thought it necessary to interfere.

The Queen | 30 October 1886

The Newcastle Courant in 1877 also gives this account of ‘ducking for apples:’

A large washing-tub, nearly full of water, is placed on the floor. Apples are then thrown into the water, and as they float about the juveniles of the household surround the tub, and, holding on to its sides by their hands, cause great merriment by their ineffectual attempts to catch an apple with their mouth. Apples with stalks are soon secured; but others require much tact and skill to seize. 

Apples appear to be synonymous with the celebration of Halloween, and indeed, as the London Evening Standard relates, in parts of the English Midlands and the South, the festival was known as ‘Snap Apple Night,’ and was marked by a peculiar custom. This custom was known in some parts of England as ‘catching the apple,’ and was also practised in the North of the country as follows:

The apple is stuck upon one end of a hanging beam, while at the other is fixed a lighted candle; the person trying to possess himself of the apple must do so with the mouth only – his hands being tied behind him – and thus, in catching at the fruit, he stands a good chance of having the candle whirled around in his face instead.

Catching the Halloween apple | The Sphere | 6 November 1920

We can see why, perhaps, this rather dangerous tradition did not last through the years. And as the Newry Telegraph notes, it bears some ‘resemblance to the old English game of Quintain,’ which involved running at a board and trying to break it, with ‘ineffectual attempts’ causing a bag of sand to whip round and knock over the unfortunate competitor.

Meanwhile, apples were distributed to children in Cornwall on Halloween, according to the London Evening Standard, and in St. Ives in particular these apples were known as ‘Allan apples.’ Children in that town ‘would deem it a great misfortune to go to bed without their Allan apple to hide beneath their pillows.’

Bonfires at Balmoral

Another ancient Halloween tradition was that of the bonfire. The Newry Telegraph notes how the bonfires that were kindled in ‘Scotland and Wales, on All-Hallow’s Eve, appear to have been a relic of Druidical times.’ Back to Samhain, here, as the Newry Telegraph describes:

…the Druids having lighted [bonfires] on their four great festivals, one of which fell about this time. After various magic ceremonies had taken place to oppose the influence of demons and witches, and to prognosticate the success or failure of matrimonial schemes, the hollow fire was lighted and watched by the male portion of the family.

Such fires were thought to ward away any malign spirits. Meanwhile, in North Wales, a ‘great fire’ called Coel Coeth was lit on Halloween:

…near the residence of each family, in a conspicuous spot; when this land is nearly burnt out, each person threw into the ashes a white stone previously marked. Having then offered up their prayers, turning round the fire, they retired for the night. In the morning, if any one of these stones were missing, the person who threw it in, and whose mark it bore, was considered certain to die before the returning anniversary of All Saints’ Eve.

Again, the superstitious nature of Halloween traditions is shown here, the night being full of portents and omens. And at Balmoral in the Victorian era, the Scottish retreat of Queen Victoria, bonfires again illuminated the night’s sky on Halloween. The Witney Express and Oxfordshire and Midland Counties Herald, November 1881, gives this account of the festivities at Balmoral:

The proceedings began shortly after sunset, when a procession of torchbearers, numbering upwards of 200, paraded the lawn in front of the castle and marched towards a huge bonfire, the materials for which had been carefully built up and formed a pile of imposing appearance.

The Graphic | 28 June 1887

The queen’s youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice, then lit the bonfire:

…the flames speedily rose and shot higher than the towers of the castle. At a given signal a band of figures, wearing masks and dressed in the most grotesque costumes imaginable, issued from the mews of the castle, and were followed by a car containing the effigy of a witch. The chariot was drawn by a huge demon clad in garments of flaming colour, and when the witch had been passed several times round the fire a court was formed and a mock trial was held.

The object of the bonfire was to burn the effigy of a witch, who had inevitably been found guilty at her ‘mock trial.’ As the Druids had done some thousand years before, the royal party at Balmoral were using the bonfire to banish perceived evil. And so the effigy was ‘dragged into the fire, and tossed into the flames amidst the shrieks and howls of the assembled spectators,’ which numbered between 300 and 400.

The Graphic | 7 January 1893

Meanwhile, Halloween in Scotland was noted for being a ‘festival alike for high and low,’ as relates the London Evening Standard:

In very many families the old custom of entertaining the servants at supper, and of admitting them to temporary equality with their employers, still prevails.

And so whilst Queen Victoria and her entourage were celebrating Halloween at Balmoral, so were, for example, the inmates at the Elgin Asylum, who marked the festivities ‘with the usual mirth and hilarity,’ as details the Elgin Courant, and Morayshire Advertiser. In Scotland, Halloween was a festival for everyone.

‘Smeaking’ and Soul Cakes

Halloween traditions are many and plentiful, but we thought we’d round up proceedings by taking a look at one of its more unusual customs, and finally, at the foods associated with the occasion.

Our writer for the Orkney Herald in 1863 numbers the ‘chief of all [his] stolen pleasures’ at Halloween to be ‘smeaking.’ This basically involved hollowing out the stock of cabbage, and filling it with material and a ‘hot cinder.’ Then, the smoking cabbage would be taken ‘quietly to a door or the window of a house,’ where ‘volumes of stifling smoke’ then filtered through. And so, residents were thus ‘smeaked,’ as they came out running demanding to know where the smoke was coming from. Tricks like this, we wonder, may have evolved into the ‘Trick or Treat’ tradition.

And Halloween festivities of old were full of treats. The Newry Telegraph in 1862 notes how in Ripon, Yorkshire, Halloween was known as ‘cake night,’ as cakes would be made ‘for every one in the family.’ Meanwhile in Warwickshire seed cakes were eaten, whilst in Shropshire these delicacies were known as ‘soul cakes, and every visitor that day partook of them.’

Halloween in Ireland | The Queen | 30 October 1886

Nowadays, too, Halloween is associated with the consumption of alcohol, and this also has ancient origins. In Ireland, Halloween treats were accompanied by ‘lamb’s wool, a mixture of bruised roasted apples and ale, and sometimes white wine or milk.’ The Newry Telegraph gives us this explanation behind the creation of lamb’s wool:

The first day of November was dedicated to the angel presiding over fruits, seeds, &., and was therefore named La Mas Ubhal, that is the day of the apple fruit; and being pronounced Lamasool, the English have corrupted the name to ‘lamb’s wool.’ 

We hope you’ve enjoyed this foray through the festival of Halloween – are you inspired to revive any of these old traditions? Find out more about Halloween, the Victoria era, and much more by browsing the pages of The Archive here.

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