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October 29, 2010

It’s that time of year again. The shops are full of pumpkins and dressing up outfits. Shelves are groaning under all the sweets and cakes and on Sunday the door will reverberate to knocks and thinly disguised threats unless placatory offerings are made. It’s all become more reminiscent of Saturnalia; the ancient Roman festival that falls during December when roles were reversed and the young and the servants ruled the roost.

However, I wonder if the revellers will follow the other traditional days that follow? Monday is All Saints’ Day, when traditionally the church remembered all those who had died in the Christian faith, and the following day, November 2nd, All Souls Day, was another solemn day when all those who have gone before, family, friends and acquiantances should be quietly remembered and prayed for (traditionally to ease them on from Purgatory). Although its origins may lie with the early church, the 10th century Cluniac monks moved the day of remembrance from around Pentecost to the day we know in November and the custom spread further through society during the Middle Ages.  As a historian, it is worth remembering that we are partly the product of those past influences on our lives. It is also ironic to reflect that as the church remembers those who have died in faith, that it has meant substantially different things through the centuries and perhaps what survives clearly is the need for tolerance and generosity in allowing each person to believe in their own way without imposing our thoughts on them.

Personally I prefer to think of Hallowe’en as it was long, long ago. Before the Romans came to England there were four festivals which fell at roughly equal intervals through the year. Chronologically this meant that the first one was Imbolc (in February) which celebrated the start of lambing and new life. Beltane (in May) was a fire festival to mark the Sun’s returning, though practically, the practice of driving cattle through between great bonfires may have had the advantage of killing off any insect infestations they had developed during the winter.  Lugh, or Lughnasa (in early August) marked the year’s fulfilment as growth started to come to harvest and the final festival of the year was Samhain (pronounced Sow-een) which has survived best, in some ways, but as a commercial entity. Once, though, it marked the new year. The tribes which lived here before the Romans stamped their identity and beliefs on them knew that when seeds were planted they did not appear immediately; there was a quiet time when nothing happened on the surface but below the roots were forming. Thus they placed their new year at the quiet resting time as Autumn turned to Winter. The shortest day, the Solstice, was hugely important as it marked the darkest point of the year, after which (although it may not seem like it sometimes) the days imperceptibly began to lengthen. As Samhain marked the transition from the old to the new year many believed that the barriers between past, present and future were thinner than usual, and therefore that the three could intermingle. It’s why people took precautions: fires, feasts and company to make clear that they were living in the present and could not be influenced by stray spirits or powers. Over the centuries, elements of this were still believed despite Christian teaching and relatively recently the commercial world has moved in and kidnapped the day for its own purposes and encouraged the American custon of trick or treat.

Hallowe’en pumpkins have replaced the turnip which is far harder to hollow out. The partying, food and ghostly costumes have, in all probability, replaced the feast that used to take place at All Souls where an extra place would be laid for the invisible guest who joined in spirit. The witches’ costumes, green makeup, warts and pointed hats all owe more to modern myth and children’s stories. Witches don’t seem to have been an issue until the Middle Ages when the clergy and legal system did their best to turn women into inferior beings, tarred with original sin.* Although women of any age could be targeted, elderly, vulnerable and lonely women with little protection were convenient scapegoats for anything that went wrong in a community and this fear developed into the witch hunts typified by events in Essex in the 17th century.

Nowadays, sadly, at Hallowe’en it is again often the elderly, the frail and the vulnerable who fear the day and the aggression that some of their masked and hooded visitors show as they demand ‘trick or treat’.

*In essence the belief that everyone was born wicked (in sin) because of the disobedience of a literal Adam and Eve which led to their and ensuing generations being denied access to the garden of Eden.

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