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31 October – Halloween or All Hallows Eve

Posted By on October 31, 2014

Halloween pumpkins Happy Halloween! Today in many countries around the world children and adults will be dressing up in costume, carving pumpkins, going to parties, going trick or treating… having all kinds of fun, but what is Halloween really all about? Is it a celebration of all things paranormal and evil?

Well, no, not originally anyway and in the church Hallowtide is actually a religious festival when people remember their dead loved ones. Here is some information from an article I wrote last year…

All Hallows Eve (Halloween), the night before All Saints’ Day (All Hallows), has its roots in the Celtic new year festival of Samhain, which was celebrated from sunset on 31st October to sunset on 1st November. At Samhain, it was believed that the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead was at its thinnest and that the souls of the dead could walk the earth. People would light bonfires and wear masks to ward off these ghosts. When Pope Gregory III chose 1st November as a day to remember and honour the apostles and all the saints and martyrs of the Church in the 9th century, the traditions associated with Samhain became incorporated into this and the evening of 31st October became a night to mark the passage of souls through Purgatory.

Prior to the Reformation in England, a key doctrine taught to the people was that of Purgatory. Purgatory was seen as a real physical place where souls went between death and the Last Judgement. In her recent programme, Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death – A Good Death, Helen Castor explained that Purgatory was a place of darkness, fire and terror, where sins were purged and souls were burnished before being given passage to Heaven. It was a period of punishment which was proportional to the person’s amount of sins.

Trick or treating is thought to come from the practice of “souling”, when poor people and children (soulers) went door to door on Halloween begging for soul cakes, spiced cakes. Each soul cake was said to represent a soul in Purgatory and in exchange for a cake the souler would promise to pray for the dead of that household. Here is a version of a song that was sung by children in the 19th century when they went “souling”:

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.

The Reformation brought about changes – the doctrine of purgatory was abandoned, praying for the dead was frowned on etc. – but people loved the traditions associated with Hallowtide too much to give them up completely and many survived.

So, Hallowtide isn’t all about witches, ghosts and ghouls, it’s also about remembering dead loved ones. Tomorrow, here in Spain, All Saints’ Day is a public holiday, with masses held in honour of the Saints, and then on All Souls’ Day (2nd November) people will visit cemeteries and lay flowers and light candles in honour of their dead relatives. Do you have any traditions associated with Hallowtide (Halloween, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day) where you are?

Here is Sting’s version of “Soul Cake”:

If you fancy making soul cakes to give to trick or treaters tonight, then you can find a recipe at http://www.food.com/recipe/soul-cakes-143070

Notes and Sources

7 thoughts on “31 October – Halloween or All Hallows Eve”

  1. Leslie says:

    Thank you for posting this history, Claire. I wish more people in the US knew the true origins. Halloween was always a favorite of mine, and while I am in the true spirit dressed as a vampire today, I will also remember the origins when this was a day to remember our loved ones that have passed.

  2. Christine says:

    I didn’t know all that about Halloween either, and I think the song is rather enchanting, I’m in my fifties and when I was a girl Halloween wasn’t really anything we celebrated in England as Bonfire Night was made much of, something which doesn’t really happen anymore which I think is a shame as we would go out with a stuffed Guy and knock on doors and ask for a penny for the Guy, Halloween was mentioned in books just as a pagan ritual that our ancestors used to believe in and it was said if you looked in a mirror you would see your future husband, tho I think you had to have an apple to or something like that, I feel a bit mean now because I’m expecting a few knocks tonight but haven’t any sweeties for the kids.

  3. BanditQueen says:

    All Souls Eve is to remember the dead, as the interesting history indicates and there are many ways to do this. All through November of course we have the memorial of the holy souls, pray especially for our loved ones who have gone before and honour the saints who have gone before us. The origins of course go back far beyond our memory into ancient times and there were many pagan ways to honour the ancestors and our loved ones; but I fear that today it has become commercialised and we are made to feel prisoners in our homes, with kids and people encouraged to annoy people whether or not we have anything for them or not. I have no objection to the kids in our road going to parties and trick or treating around some of the homes, and we put a notice or a symbol up to indicate where they are welcome; but for students to go around all the distict annoying people; elderly, disabled they don’t care; not once but several times in the same evening; this is not what Halloween is about. The same group banged on my door three times in 15 mins and returned another three times; I was eating and so was my sick husband and they still did not read the police notice asking them to go away in the window. We do not open the door at night and we have a notice saying no uninvited callers. We know the local kids and do have things for them when they come at 8 p.m when we know to expect them. We are not going to be intimidated by gangs of over aged students who are nothing but nuisances and cause nothing but a mockery of the real heart of this old festival.

  4. Thank you for the information. I live in the use and we honor our dead on memorial day which falls on the last Monday in May.

  5. maureen says:

    Thanks for posting this, I knew some of this but the song and history detail is very interesting! much different than Trick or Treat in the US Thanks!

  6. Morgan says:

    My family and I are Pagan, and we celebrate Halloween as Samhain, which marks our New Year. We also honor our dear departed friends and loved ones.

  7. Dawn 1st says:

    Has anyone heard of Devil’s night before? I bet some of the American visitors of the ABF will have. It’s something new to me, I heard of it for the first time on the TV a few weeks ago.
    From what little I have read about it since it was held on the 30th Oct, but sometimes it goes on for 3 nights before Halloween, and in some parts of the U.S. it was called Mischief Night, (similar to the British Mischief Night held on the 4th of November), where city kids would get up to no good, pranks etc,
    It started in the 1930’s so I read, but apparently it escalated into some serious acts of vandalism in the 1970’s. mainly arson, reaching it’s peak in the 80’s especially in the areas of Detroit, there were 800 fires in 1984. That is scary!!

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