Hallowe’en – or Hollantide!
HALLOWE’EN’S come round again, and you’ve probably stocked up on sweets and other goodies, ready for the trick or treaters.
Love it or loath it – and there are many who’d rather do without what they deem American commercialisation – the kids fleecing us on our doorsteps are just preserving an old British tradition that has returned to us in a more commercial guise.
For parents and grandparents alike, kitting out our little horrors with the obligatory hairy werewolf hands, vampire fangs and all the paraphernalia no self-respecting witch or devil can be seen without, costs an arm and a leg. And that’s without all the goody bags for visiting ghouls and monsters. And then there are the parties and scary movies. In my day, a bit of apple bobbing and dressing up in one of Mom’s old sheets was about it!
These days, giant pumpkins sporting ghoulish grins have replaced our homely lanterns carved from turnips and swedes. But, despite the Americanisation, the practice of begging for food and drink at Hallowe’en is an ancient one. In days gone by, it was the adults rather than the children who went round door to door, hoping for some cakes and ale – and in those days, it wasn’t confined to just one night. Hallowe’en customs spread over several days, in a festive season known as Hollantide.
We celebrate Hallowe’en on 31st October, but prior to the calendar shake-up during the 18th century, it all kicked off on 12th November. To the Celts, it was Samhain – the Celtic New Year – the time when the winter goddess, Cailleach Bheur woke from her long sleep to blight the land with cold. Grazing animals were brought back into the homesteads, and all visitors were made welcome – even the dead ones! Because, Samhain was, above all, a time when the human and spirit worlds mingled.
Hallowe’en night was also one of several ‘mischief nights’ during the year, when trickery and practical jokes were sanctioned, and people could let off steam with impunity.
It was also one of the best times for the age-old female pastime of guessing who your future husband might be. Apparently, to discover more about the man of your dreams you needed some cabbage leaves. Highly regarded by the Romans in matters of divination, a few cabbage leaves under your pillow at night guaranteed dreams of your future intended. Even better, muddy cabbage leaves meant the chap had a few bob. But, beware if the leaves tasted bitter – as your dream lover could have a temperament to match.
Most of us have probably enjoyed apple bobbing as kids and apples had a magical significance to the Celts. Originally a form of divination, like many rituals over time, apple bobbing became a party game. Similarly, roasting chestnuts on the fire was a means of Hallowe’en fortune telling – another name for the festival being Nutcrack Night.
Bonfires also played a large part in the festivities, with people and animals leaping through the flames. This custom harks back to ancient ritual sacrifice, in times when the animal or even human sacrifice did not re-emerge from the flames.
In later times, our forebears believed leaping over the fire brought good luck – as well as purging animal and human jumpers of disease. This week, we have the double whammy – Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night!
Hallowe’en or Hollantide continued for another two days. Weatherwise, November the first, or All Saints Day, was the start of All Hallows Summer – supposedly a spell of unseasonably warm weather. Something we’ve definitely experienced with an Indian summer keeping the colder autumn temperatures at bay until recently.
Our forebears were even more obsessed with the weather than we are. Like us, they were keen to know what weather to expect at the biggest festival of the year – Christmas. In a predominantly rural society, our ancestors needed advance warnings of bad weather conditions more than we do.
So, they studied animals and nature for signs, always on the lookout for changing conditions. Popular weather lore with its infinite range of rhymes and old sayings was their version of the Met Office. Apparently, watching what ducks got up to during Hollantide offered clues to weather conditions over the festive season:
‘If ducks do slide at Hollantide, at Christmas they will swim;
If ducks do swim at Hollantide, at Christmas they will slide.’
So, an icy November meant a wet Christmas; while an unseasonably warm November guaranteed a white Christmas. Bookies take note!
All Saints Day and the following day, All Souls Day, were days to let your hair down – popular pranks included flinging cabbage stalks at people and filling your neighbour’s house with smoke. Nice!
In the Black Country, the custom of ‘Souling’ was popular. This involved gangs of grown-ups going door to door, singing special souling songs. If the householders could stand the din, they rewarded soulers with specially baked ‘soul cakes’ washed down with home-brew.
On leaving, soulers let everyone know whether yours was ‘a good house’ or ‘a bad house’ depending on the quality and quantity of the free food and drink! Originally, the food and drink was meant to reward the soulers for praying for the souls of the dead.
In his book, ‘Staffordshire Customs, Superstitions and Folklore’, historian, G.t.lawley includes a souling song noted down from an old Staffordshire woman, in 1824: Soul! Soul! For an apple or two; If you’ve got no apples, pears will do, Soul! Soul! For your soul’s sake, Pray, good mistress, a soul cake! An apple or pear, a plum or a cherry, Or any good thing, to make us merry. St Peter was a good old mon, And for his sake, give us one; None of your worst, but one of your best, So God may send your souls to rest. Up with your kettles, And down with your pons, Give us a soul cake And we’ll be gone! With the kids on their autumn half term break, it’s not too late to enjoy some horrifying Hallowe’en fun.
From 27th October to 4th November Terrifying Tales are on offer at the Black Country Living Museum. With something for young and old alike, there’s a ‘terrifying trail’ where you’ll discover what lurks in the museum’s shadows – ‘from creepy canal jumpers to strange Victorian wives’ tales’.
You can also learn about old, seasonal customs like turnip carving and the significance of soul cakes – while keeping an eye out for some mischievous characters.
For some light relief after soaking up the Black Country’s dark side, try some old fashioned traditional street games, like hopscotch, skipping or hoop rolling.
For more information visit the website at: www.bclm.co.uk
Hope your Hollantide is suitably spooky!
A look into a candle-lit mirror on Hallowe’en was said to show a young woman her future husband ...
Fortune telling games using apples, candles and mirrors were all part of traditional Hallowe’en fun
A spooky – but lovely – Hallowe’en card from the early 1900s