For me growing up in rural Hertfordshire, quite a few decades ago, making guys to be burned on a bonfire was a big thing. Children would stuff old clothes with straw and various vegetables would be pressed into service for the head. The bolder boys would use their go-carts to pull their guys around the village, begging for pennies.
In Blaxhall, Suffolk, Diane remembers children spending their half-term holiday preparing their guys for the bonfire on the 5th November, but friends from farther afield went further and dressed themselves or friends as the guy itself. We don’t remember much mention of Hallowe’en though, other than bobbing for apples.
Before 1605, Hallowe’en was as important here as it was elsewhere in Europe. On All Hallows Eve the gates of hell opened and spewed out the samhanach to drag down unwary travellers to their doom. On that night it was strictly advised not to be near crossroads, stiles or gibbets. And all of November was dedicated to the dead, who would rise to warm their cold bones by the fires of the living. Householders would (in theory) bank up the fire at bedtime, leave milk and bread on the kitchen table and leave the door on the latch… And as they cowered in their beds, they would try to ignore the sounds from downstairs.
A legal requirement
But then – a foiled plot to blow up the Protestant King James I and his Parliament. They took this threat to themselves very seriously. So seriously they passed an Act requiring Thanksgiving across the country, which remained law until 1859. So, for 254 years, celebrating on 5 November was actually a legal requirement.
Falling conveniently close to Hallowe’en and marked by similar festivities, Bonfire Night supplanted Hallowe’en celebrations in England and Wales. In Scotland the older traditions remained strong, and there too, there were legislative requirements – the Witchcraft Act of 1735 forbad the consumption of pork and pastry on Hallowe’en. Ireland wanted no part in celebrating the failure of a Catholic plot, and continued their Hallowe’en traditions.
But why is the end of Autumn so important it’s marked by celebrations anyway? Early Christians recognised the value of replacing the reason for celebrating – the ‘why’ – while retaining the ‘when’ and much of the ‘how’. “Pope Gregory [around 600 CE} advised a missionary going to England that instead of trying to do away with the religious customs of non-Christian peoples, they simply should convert them to a Christian religious purpose.” So, the midwinter feasts became Christmas and the spring celebrations of rebirth took on a resurrection meaning.
That left Samhain. Samhain (pronounced Showain, So’een or variations) was the Celtic New Year. The crops had been harvested and livestock gathered for slaughter or to overwinter. Meanwhile, the nights became longer than the days and the veil between the worlds seemed thinner. Now was the time when faeries, spirits and ghosts might make their way into the corporeal world.
Protection by Jack o’Lantern
So, the animal bones were burnt in great bonefires and children disguised so they would not be taken. What better way to protect a child from a malevolent spirit than to disguise the child as one of the spirit’s own? Homes were protected by the facsimiles of evil spirits in the windows, carved from root vegetables and with candles inside. Originally turnips and swedes, when immigrants took Hallowe’en traditions to America they found pumpkins were much easier to carve.
The carved vegetables are called Jack o’Lantern, an alternative name for will-o-the-wisps, the lights that flicker across peat bogs. Then there is the legend of Stingy Jack, who, in various versions, was consigned to wander the world forever with only the light from a turnip lamp to guide him.
The name Hallowe’en is Christian – a shortening of All Hallows’ Eve, the celebration of all the saints, especially those lacking their own day. But the celebrations that accompany it have their roots in pagan beliefs.
Immigrants from different countries took their own versions of Hallowe’en with them to America, and an account from 1919 shows how traditions seem to have become merged, with parties, games and items hidden in cakes.
The town that formalised ‘Trick or treat’
“Trick or treat” has echoes of the Scottish tradition of “guised” children visiting houses to be rewarded with treats, but the trick part became particularly unkind in early-20th century America. The people of Anoka, in Minnesota got thoroughly fed-up of the antics of mischief makers and formalised the practice of trick or treat.
For myself, I can’t help but feel there is a deep-seated need in the human psyche to recognise the turning of the year. As the nights draw in, we become attuned to thoughts of things that go bump in the night, no matter how rational we are. Whether we use Hallowe’en or Bonfire Night as the excuse, we love creating light and dressing up.