Hal­lowe’en – or Hol­lan­tide!

Black Country Bugle - - GAIL MIDDLETON -

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.

Lit­tle hor­rors

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

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