Magical night allowed people to see future love and death
Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, was once celebrated as the end – and the beginning – of the old Celtic year, a time when the dead were both honoured, and feared.
The name itself derives from the Old English word "hallowed" meaning holy or sanctified, but the Celtic/ Irish word for the festival, Samhain, simply means "summer's end".
Falling on the last day of autumn, this was a time for bringing in the animals from the fields and preparing for the cold winter months to come.
But it was also, it was once believed, when a crack in the door between the physical and supernatural worlds opened just wide enough to let magical happenings take place.
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Children born on Halloween would not only enjoy lifelong protection from evil, but also be endowed with second sight – the ability to see into the future.
In Scotland, where huge fires were once lit, a fairy host was said to be composed of the souls of the dead flying though the air.
On this very night – if they could find their way – the recently deceased would, it was thought, re-visit their old homes hoping to find a welcome by familiar firesides.
And it was considered dangerous to try and stop them.
All Hallows Day was when, before the Reformation, Mass was said for those recently deceased, waiting to enter heaven, as well as for all the revered saints who had gone before.
And so, despite its pagan roots, it's essentially a Christian festival, as ordered to be celebrated church-wide by Pope Gregory in the 9th Century.
The church traditionally held a vigil on All Hallows' Eve when worshippers would prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to All Saints day itself.
By medieval times the festival had evolved into ringing bells and baking cakes to attract, and sustain, the souls of the dead as they wandered about the earth.
Some spirits, regarded as vengeful, were best avoided by the wearing of masks, costumes and other disguises.
Poor folk would go from door to door – much like wassailing at Christmas – receiving food in return for saying prayers for the dead.
In fact Shakespeare mentions this very thing in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
In Scotland and Ireland it was the custom for masqueraders – children disguised in costume – to go from door to door asking for cakes, fruit or money.
This could well be the origin of "trick or treating" – a custom which seems to have originated in Sweden.
It was the Reformation – plus the increasing popularity of Guy Fawkes, or Bonfire Night, in early November – which saw the disappearance of Halloween as a major festival.
But in the Celtic lands of Scotland and Ireland many of the old traditions lingered on.
Bonfires, sometimes built on ancient burial mounds, were seen as protecting the family, and community, from harm for the 12 months ahead.
Leaping over the fires – some of which were doused and then re-lit from a magical central source – was said to bring both future good health and good luck.
Prayers were said, and burning straw tossed into the air on pitchforks, as livestock was driven through the flames.
As the blaze died down, and full darkness enveloped the proceedings, people would race home in fear of a mythical, tail-less, black pig – the Devil in disguise.
In Wales it was believed that, at Halloween, a black pig sat on every stile waiting to waylay people.
Some people believed that, for 48 hours, the sun itself entered the gates of Hell.
This was not a time for lingering in churchyards, although, at midnight, those still about would miraculously hear the names of all those villagers who would die in the year ahead.
The custom of carving out turnips and then turning them, with the help of a candle, into lanterns, was a way of remembering the souls held in purgatory.
It was immigrants to North America who decided to use the much larger – and easier to carve – native pumpkin instead.
These could then be carried from door to door to light the way.
A vestige of this old custom still takes place every year at Hinton St George, near Ilminster, in deepest Somerset, where the children celebrate Punkie Night with lighted lanterns.
As they parade through the village they sing:
It's Punkie night tonight,
It's Punkie night tonight,
Give us a candle, give us a light,
It's Punkie night tonight.
It's said that, late one evening, the village womenfolk were becoming increasingly concerned about their husbands who had not yet returned from Chiselborough fair.
They feared that, worse the wear through drink, the men had suffered some mishap, such as drowning in a local ford.
After making lights from hollowed out turnips or mangolds (manglewurzels) they set out and, finding them on the road, brought them safely home before midnight.
As well as fairies, which could cast evil spells, witches were also out in force at Halloween, riding their broomsticks and working all sorts of mischief.
One way of protecting yourself from harm was with a horseshoe, or indeed anything made of iron. Rowan, apparently, was also effective. It was at this special time of year, as the veil between the two worlds was thinning, that glimpses, it was believed, could be seen of the future.
Young women hoping to catch a glimpse of their future husbands would, on eating an apple, see his face revealed in a mirror in a darkened room. If they were destined to die before marriage, however, a skull would appear.
A traditional Scottish form of divining a future spouse was to throw apple peel over your shoulder.
This would land, hopefully, in the shape of the first letter of his name.
In some areas of the country you could dream of your future love by sleeping with a cabbage, or kale stalk, under the pillow.
In other places eating a salted herring before retiring would not only bring on a violent thirst, but also a vision of your future partner carrying a glass of water.
Amorous matters, however, were not the only subjects up for divination on this special night.
By dripping egg, not lead or candle wax, into cold water, the shape formed would, in some way, provide an answer to many vexing questions.
I've mentioned soul cakes, baked in honour of the dead, but in Wales some families would make a nine-ingredient cake, containing a single bean.
Finding it in your slice would, it was hoped, guarantee prosperity for the year ahead.
Another culinary delight, "Dumb cakes", were prepared in complete silence with water, eggs and salt, pricked with your initials and placed on the griddle.
As they slowly cooked, so your future lovers/spouses initials would also miraculously appear, too.
Typical Halloween activities these days include dressing up in spooky costumes, going trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins into candle-lit lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, telling scary stories and watching horror films.
Halloween is certainly making a comeback and, love it or hate it, it's getting more popular every year.