Wassails, Snails and Thin Otherworldly Veils: Halloween Folklore and Traditions

What are you doing for Halloween? Dressing up and demanding sweeties from your neighbours? Going to a party? Or scoffing that Halloween’s become too commercial, what with all those plastic pumpkins and spider-ful shop window displays? We all know that the 31st October is the time when ghosties and ghoulies are out and about frightening us all, but there’s more to this time of year when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest (allegedly). Plenty of fortune-telling traditions, and rituals designed to protect yourself from the spirits, have grown up around the end of October, going centuries back into folk memory. Read on for a brief exploration of Halloween’s origins, and some more unusual or forgotten traditions you might like to try.

Firstly, to briefly trace the origins of the festival. Halloween has historically been called All Hallow’s Eve, Hallowe’en and All Saint’s Eve, amongst other variations. The names come from the festival’s timing the eve of All Saints’ Day: “hallow” comes from “halig” or rather, “holy”, which could be used as a synonym for “saint” in the Middle Ages, and “e’en” comes from “eve”. All Saint’s Day was an important festival in the Christian calendar as a time to commemorate all the saints in the Roman Catholic tradition, and to pray and give masses for their souls. The feast day was first established in 609 or 610 by Pope Boniface IV, when he consecrated Rome’s Pantheon as a church dedicated to all Christian Martyrs. Interestingly, the day selected for the feast, 13th May, coincided with the final day of the Roman feast of the Lemures, a day when diligent citizens performed rites to appease malicious spirits; the initial fixing of All Saints’ to this day could have been an attempt to Christianize the pagan festival. All Saints was officially changed to its 1st November date by Pope Gregory in the eighth century.[1]

All Souls’ Day follows All Saints’ on 2nd November. This feast was apparently developed alongside All Saints’ and was popularised by St Odillo of Cluny in the late tenth century, as he made it a dedicated day for his monks to pray for the souls of all those in purgatory. He perhaps realised that the souls of ordinary sinners were in need of more prayers and help than the souls of saints, who by their own virtues were already free of the cleansing fires of purgatory. The whole three day period is known as “Allhallowtide” or “Hallowmass” in the Christian calendar. These days were marked much the same as any other saints’ day in the medieval period: people would attend church to pray, sing masses for the dead and ring bells.

Image of turnip lamp – An frankly terifying Irish Seán Na Gealaí turnip
lantern from the early 20th century at the Museum of Country Life,
Ireland. Image form Wikipedia Commons.

Of course, medieval customs tied to practices of the Roman Catholic church were suppressed during the Protestant Reformation. As Protestant reformers did not believe in purgatory, they stopped churches from ringing bells and saying prayers to ease the souls of the departed.[2] But old habits die hard, especially when your dead relatives’ souls are in peril. One church in Giling, Yorkshire, was even broken into by the villagers on the 2nd November 1578 so they could ring the traditional peal of bells to comfort souls in purgatory, and to scare away more sinister spirits creeping across the threshold between worlds.[3] Though suppressed for a long time, some traditions such as building bonfires and ringing bells would re-emerge again, as deep-seated practices tend to do when buried in folk memory.

As a festival still part of the church calendar, Hallowmass is still celebrated today. Roman Catholics attend mass on All Saints, and across Europe, many people visit graves of departed relatives to leave flowers.

The other significant influence on Halloween is the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain. Popular culture considers this the Celtic festival of the dead; the start of the new year, a time of feasting, when the barriers between worlds are thin and magic is abroad. However, it has to be said that unfortunately there are not many early sources revealing how important this festival was, or how it was marked. Many sources about the Celtic peoples were written centuries later than events, by clerics who wanted to fit what they heard into their Christian framework. Furthermore, many folkloric elements were picked up and heavily romanticised by the Victorians, who have clouded research to an extent that is still irritating scholars today. For example, the Victorian scholars rather liked the idea of Celts having a pantheon of gods like the Greeks or Romans, so promptly elevated and exaggerated the importance of some characters in Irish and Welsh literature.

That said, it is known that medieval Irish authors certainly thought elite people gathered at Samhain to feast. Samhain appears not to be a pan-Celtic celebration, as there is no evidence Samhain was marked in Wales or Scotland, except in areas with Irish influence (in medieval Wales, the night was called “Calan Gaeaf”, the first night of winter).[4] The date also marked the end of summer and harvest time, an ideal time of year for feasting while food was plentiful and gathering family and friends together. Many stories in Celtic literature feature characters meeting at Samhain and starting journeys, fighting, or just carousing. Check out “The Intoxication of the Ulstermen” – this is the tale of a group who get invited to two Samhain parties on the same night so leave one early and then get lost, going on a boozy trip round most of Ireland before arriving, pretty late, at the second party.[5] It’s a bit like The Hangover, so not much has changed.

Image of person and pumpkin – the author and friends making their pumpkin,
called Barry, the centre of attention on Halloween 2011, as they take it
on a tour of Cambridge.

There are many instances in Irish folklore stories of fairies and other mystical creatures being abroad and causing trouble on this night, leading some historians to suggest that the barriers between worlds was known to be especially thin at this time, but it is hard to tell if this idea preceded the stories being written, for, as mentioned, plenty of these stories involve meeting at feasts, and Samhain as a feasting season could just be a convenient setting.[6] Perhaps simply, as Ronald Hutton writes, “a prehistoric belief in the danger from supernatural forces at the turning of the pastoral seasons was much reinforced by arcane associations of the Christian feast of the dead.”[7] As you can tell, much discussion has arisen in recent years about the relationship between Samhain and the Christian feast days. For more detail and depth, please do go and read Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, which challenges previous assumptions and goes into much more scholarly depth than I can here.

Now you’ve read about the origins of Halloween, here are the traditional practices. Most of these explored below date from the early modern period onwards; though for some customs we can trace earlier origins through parallels with known medieval practices, there is not so much recorded for definite before the eighteenth century. Regardless, there’s much more to Halloween than trick-or-treating, so let’s take a look through the British folk record to see what you can do to get the most out of the season where the veil between worlds is at its thinnest. What many people consider to be a “traditional” Halloween is mostly a modern re-invention of long held ideas and practices. Many of the traditions explored below were first recorded in the eighteenth century (notably, and comprehensively, in Robert Burns’ notes to his epic Halloween-set poem, Tam o’Shanter) and more recently in the twentieth century by Peter and Iona Opie during their extensive, and exhaustive, research into childrens’ culture and belief systems, published as The Lore and Language of School Children in 1959 (go and read it, it’s a fascinating trove of rhymes, games and suchlike).

Firstly, you’re going to need protection. Many supernatural forces cross over into the human world during this season, and if you’re dabbling in a spot of divination or just going about your daily business, you need to make sure you’re not at risk. Traditionally this is the most important night to avoid fairy hills, or sidh in Ireland, as the fairies are more active and likely to kidnap mortals who they take a fancy to. Witches are also knocking about, accompanying evil spirits on their journeys across the countryside. So you need to be disguised. Being dressed-up is an integral part of trick-or-treating, but even more so for its forerunning tradition, guising (from, yes, “disguising”). This seems most common in Northern England and Scotland, where groups of young men or children would disguise themselves and go around their neighbours’ houses, performing a song or chant in exchange for sweets or small coins. Kids would make up their own chants; one from Northumberland in the 1950s goes:

“We are the Guisers on Halloween night,

We don’t mean to scare you, or give you a fright.

We are the Guisers with our beady eye-ses

And our old school ties-es…”

Similarly, a Kirkcaldy chant, collected by the Opies in the 1950s went:

“Please tae help the guisers, please tae ope’ your door,
Please tae gi’e the bairnies an aipple frae your store;
Please tae help the guisers, please tae let us in,
Please tae help the guisers an’ join oor merry din.”

An integral part of guising appears to have been making a lantern, be it from an empty jam jar, or hollowed out turnip. This is harder than pumpkin carving, which became the American tradition because pumpkins are more plentiful there, but has the same end goal: create a face to scare away nasty spirits. In some areas, such as on the Welsh border, the lanterns are mounted onto gate posts and poles to scare spirits away from dwellings, but most commonly, they are carried around to light the way of, and protect, the guisers. Trick-or-treat is a reinvention of guising, which became popular in the 1970s and 80s thanks in no small part to American media exposure. The incredibly popular film, E.T., for example, provided children with the perfect template for trick-or-treating, as it shows characters getting ready and going around their neighbourhood.[8] In many ways, American trick-or-treating also resembles the British tradition of “Mischief Night”. This was a time, either in April or November, when normal rules were inverted and young people would roam the streets, playing tricks on their elders. Steve Roud, noted folklorist, notes a strong tradition of what could and could not be done: gates and signs were removed, hidden and swapped, kids knocked and ran from front doors, basically “anything not screwed down was fair game”.[9] Though the tradition was practised across the midlands and north in the nineteenth century, nowadays this seems to have shrunk to Yorkshire (and, apparently, Liverpool, where it is called “Mizzy Night” and strongly discouraged by the police).

Image of child dressed up (BL) – Guisers taking passers-by by surprise.
Charles Maurice Davies, Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses, for young and
old (1875) British Library 11652.bb.42

Guising clearly comes from the earlier traditions of mumming and souling. Mummers’ plays were performed by groups of men at festivals such as New Year, Shrove Tuesday and Twelfth Night and usually followed a formulaic pattern of a hero boasting about his prowess, fighting a baddie, being wounded, and miraculously brought back to life by a doctor, before the players perform a final song, morris or sword-dance.[10] These plays seem to originate from the eighteenth century, but the tradition of souling is much older.

Souling, as mentioned, is a medieval tradition from All Souls’ Day, 2nd November. On this day, groups of men or children would go around their richer neighbours’ homes to beg for food – all good Christians should practise charitable giving, and this was one such event. This developed into the groups singing or performing short plays in exchange for cake, apples, money, ale or leftovers, specifically “soul-cakes”, special round, spiced cakes made just for the occasion. The Opies noted that making soul cakes was a waning custom, in only a few parts of the country (Staffordshire, Cheshire), though it is still celebrated in Portugal, amongst other places.[11] But any excuse for cake’s a good one – there are plenty of tasty traditional soul cake recipes online, so I reckon this tradition could easily be resurrected.

Another medieval custom surviving until modern times has been the lighting of bonfires for protection. Though bonfires are mostly lit on Guy Fawkes night in England these days, traditionally bonfires were set up near farmyards to keep any malevolent spirits away from the cattle.

As well as guising, Halloween parties have been popular amongst children in certain areas of Britain for over a century. You’re probably familiar with many of the games – bobbing (or dooking) for apples is the most popular, where you have to pick up an apple from a bowl of water without using your hands. (A family member of mine who shall remain nameless always used to win this, by taking her false teeth out of her mouth and using them to bite an apple.) A variant, that you may have played at kids’ parties, is to dangle the apple on a string and try to bite it. Another game, recorded in Scotland by the Opies, is to have an apple on top of a mound of flour; kids then scoop away some of the flour with a knife without dislodging the apple, as the person who knocks it has to get it out of the pile with their mouth.[12] Not so much fun when it’s in the bottom of the heap and you get flour up your nose, but it’s worse for the variations found in Slough and Wales where the mound is made of soot or salt.

So you’ve got your sweets and you’re well protected. Now get down to business, because Halloween is seemingly best time of year for fortune telling. Methods for divining your future spouse are the most usual, and, like the games, some involve fruit. One method was for an unmarried person to peel an apple in one go, and throw the string of skin over her left shoulder. The letter the skin formed was the initial of their future beloved. Another way was for a woman to brush her hair three times while looking in the mirror (sometimes eating an apple). Her future husband would then appear in the glass, looking over her shoulder (and then presumably she’d scream and call the police).

Snails can also reveal the initials of your true love to you. The Opies collected one tradition from Breconshire in which kids picked a snail and hid it under a box lid so it couldn’t escape. By the morning, the snail should have spelt out your future lover’s initials, though the lady the Opies spoke to said that her snail year after year climbed up the side of the box and slept…and to this day she had never married.[13]

Divination-by-nuts was so popular and well known in Durham that Halloween was called “Nut-Crack Night”.[14] For you singletons, you need to place several nuts by the fire, naming each after a prospective partner, and the nut which catches fire and burns brightest is the match for you. If you want to suss out the compatibility of your current, or hoped-for, squeeze, then place two nuts side by side, one named for you and one for the other person. If the nuts burn brightly and quietly, then the match is a good one and marriage will be happy. If, however, they burn vigorously and jump apart then the couple will row and split up.[15] Jumping away from the heat can prove an unfaithful character, and not catching flame entirely, just smouldering, shows the couple are completely incompatible.[16] That should put you off.

If you want to know more about the attributes and personality of your lover, you can go and pick out the first cabbage stalk you find in your veg patch at midnight on Halloween. A well grown plant indicates a handsome partner, and any lumps and bumps can reveal their physical state.[17]

Naming items after prospective lovers is a popular means of divination. Other naming traditions include apple pips, stuck on the forehead, with the person having to stay very still until they all slide off of their own accord. The last pip to stay on the person’s face indicates the most faithful lover.[18]

For the sweet-toothed amongst you there is another cake-based divination method: making dumb cakes. These are so-called because a woman, or small group of women, have to remain completely silent whilst making the cake. Different traditions have different variations, but all involve the cake, or an individual’s portion of cake, being divided into three parts, some being eaten, some put under a pillow when they go to bed at midnight.[19] Then their true love will appear to them in a dream. A 1685 record suggests pricking your initials on your portion of cake, and then at some point in the baking, your beloved will appear and add his.[20]

Image of cabbages – Halloween postcard by Ellen Clapsaddle, c.1911

Dumb cakes are one of several divination rituals which can be performed at any time of the year but might be associated specifically with Halloween in some areas. For example, dumb cakes are recorded as being made in Scotland on Shrove Tuesdays, or in East Anglia on St Mark’s Eve. Many traditions such as this were performed on various auspicious days, such as saints’ days and Midsummer Eve – all days when the veil between worlds is thinner than usual, and your magical ritual would have a little more power working through it. (Or perhaps in more modern times, people were just more likely to be thinking of otherworldly things near a date so associated with such supernatural phenomena in popular consciousness.)

There are many more means of divination I would love to delve into for you, but alas, my editor is weary and the word count nears. One final tradition: in the Western Isles of Scotland, on Halloween, the fishermen would select a representative to wade out and “wassail the sea”. This involved him offering the sea a cup of wine or beer, in exchange for a new year of good catches. This was recorded in 1703, with the note that it had been abolished by strenuous efforts of the clergy thirty years previously. Wassailing is an old British tradition – indeed, it is still done today in many parts of the country at New Year – from the Old English “waes hale”, or “good health”. This is a very old tradition, and the fishermens’ wassailing of the sea is likely to go back centuries. Sadly, absence of it in earlier written record means we cannot know for sure.

For much more information on other traditions, I suggest doing a google or reading Ronald Hutton (mentioned above) and the Opies’ Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. There’s a wealth of folklore to add to your Halloween celebrations. And really, the magic exists regardless of if you believe in the supernatural or not: you’re taking part in traditions and rituals that have been practiced for centuries (even if it’s just from the 1800s), sharing in ideas that have flowed through from previous generations.

[1] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: The Ritual Year in Britain, (OUP, 1996): 364.

[2] Stephen Hamrick, The Catholic Imaginary and the Cults of Elizabeth, (Routledge, 2016).

[3] Carl Watkins, The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Amongst the Dead, (Vintage Books,2014): 66. See this and Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (Yale University Press, 1992) for more on the Reformation’s effect on popular religious beliefs.

[4] Hutton, 362.

[5] Proinsias Mac Cana, Celtic Mythology, (Chancellor Press, 1996): 128.

[6] Hutton, 362.

[7] Hutton, 366.

[8] Steve Roud, The English Year: A Month-by-Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night, (Penguin, 2006): 325.

[9] Roud, 326.

[10] Roud, 391-396.

[11] Iona and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of School Children, (OUP, 1959): 276.

[12] Opies, 273.

[13] Opies, 275.

[14] Opie, 272.

[15] Anthony Adams, Robert Leach, Roy Palmer, Feasts and Seasons: Autumn, (Blackie and Sons, 1977): 28.

[16] Christine Chaundler, A Year-Book of Folklore, (Mowbray, 1959): 149.

[17] Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, A Dictionary of Superstitions, (OUP, 1989): 53.

[18] Chaundler, 148.

[19] John Trotter Brockett, A Glossary of North Country Words with Their Etymology and Affinity to Other Languages and Occasional Notices of Local Customs and Popular Superstitions, (Chamley, 1846).

[20] Opie and Tatem, 127