All Hallow's Eve

views updated

All Hallow's Eve

One of the ancient four great Fire festivals in Britain, supposed to have taken place on November 1, when all fires, save those of the Druids, were extinguished, from whose altars the holy fire had to be purchased by the householders for a certain price. The festival is still known in Ireland as Samhein, or La Samon, i.e., the Feast of the Sun, while in Scotland, it has been given the name of Hallowe'en.

All Hallow's Eve, as observed in the Church of Rome, corresponds with the Feralia of the ancient Romans, when they sacrificed in honor of the dead, offered up prayers for them, and made oblations to them. In ancient times, this festival was celebrated on February 21, but the Roman church transferred it to November 1. It was originally designed to give rest and peace to the souls of the departed.

In some parts of Scotland, it is still customary for young people to kindle a fire, called a "Hallowe'en bleeze," on the tops of hills. It was customary to surround these bonfires with a circular trench symbolic of the sun.

In Perthshire, the Hallowe'en bleeze is made in the following fashion. Heath, broom, and dressings of flax are tied upon a pole. The torch is lit; a youth takes it and carries it upon his shoulders. When the torch is burned out, a second is tied to the pole and kindled. Several of these blazing torches are often carried through the villages at the same time.

Hallowe'en is believed by the superstitious to be a night on which the invisible world has peculiar power. Further, it is thought that there is no such night in all the year for obtaining insight into the future. His Satanic Majesty is supposed to have great latitude allowed him on this anniversary, in common with witches, who are believed to fly on broomsticks. Others less aerially disposed ride over by-road and heath, seated on the back of cats that have been transformed into coal-black steeds for the journey. The green-robed fairies are also said to hold special festive meetings at their favorite haunts.

There are many folk customs relating to this eve of mystic ceremonies:

The youths, who engage in the ceremony of Pulling the Green Kail, go hand-in-hand, with closed eyes, into a bachelor's or spinster's garden, and pull up the first "kail stalks" that come in their way. Should the stalks prove to be straight in stem, and with a good supply of earth at their roots, the future husbands (or wives) will be young, good looking, and rich in proportion. If the stalks are stunted, crooked, and have little or no earth at their roots, the future spouses will be found lacking in good looks and fortune. The stem's taste (sweet or sour) indicates the temper of the future partner. The stalks are afterward placed above the doors of the respective houses, and the Christian names of those persons who first pass underneath will correspond with those of the future husbands or wives.

Eating the Apple at the Glass: Provide yourself with an apple, and, as the clock strikes twelve, go alone into a room where there is a looking glass. Cut the apple into small pieces, throw one piece over your left shoulder, and advancing to the mirror without looking back, eat the remainder, combing your hair carefully all the time before the glass. It is said that the face of the person you are to marry will be seen peeping over your left shoulder. This Hallowe'en game is supposed to be a relic of that form of divination with mirrors that popes condemned as sorcery.

The Burning Nuts: Take two nuts and place them in the fire, giving one of them your own name; the other that of the object of your affections. Should they burn quietly away, side by side, then the issue of your love affair will be prosperous; but if one starts away from the other, the result will be unfavorable.

Sowing Hemp Seed: Steal forth alone toward midnight and sow a handful of hemp seed, repeating the following rhyme:

"Hemp seed, I sow thee, hemp seed, I sow thee;

And he that is my true love, come behind and harrow me." Then look over your left shoulder and you will see the person.

Winnowing Corn: This ceremony must also be performed alone. Go to a barn and open both doors, taking them off the hinges if possible. Then take the instrument used in winnowing corn, and go through the motions of letting it down against the wind. Repeat the operation three times, and the figure of your future partner will appear passing in at one door and out at the other. Should those engaging in this ceremony be fated to die young, it is believed that a coffin, followed by mourners, will enter and pursue the too adventurous youth around the barn.

Eating the Bean Stack: Go three times round a bean stack with outstretched arms, as if measuring it, and the third time you will clasp in your arms the shade of your future partner.

Eating the Herring: Just before retiring to rest, eat a raw or roasted salt herring, and in your dreams your future husband (or wife) will come and offer you a drink of water to quench your thirst.

Dipping the Shirt Sleeve: Go alone, or in company with others, to a stream where "three lairds' lands meet," and dip in the left sleeve of a shirt; after this is done not one word must be spoken, otherwise the spell is broken. Then put your sleeve to dry before your bedroom fire. Go to bed, but be careful to remain awake, and you will see the form of your future helpmate enter and turn the sleeve in order that the other side may get dried.

The Three Plates: Place three plates in a row on a table. In one of these put clean water, in another dirty water, and leave the third empty. Blindfold the person wishing to try his or her fortune, and lead him or her up to the table, left hand forward. Should it come in contact with the clean water, then the future spouse will be young, handsome, and a bachelor or maid. The dirty water signifies a widower or a widow, and the empty dish, no spouses. This ceremony is repeated three times, and the plates must be differently arranged after each attempt.

Throwing the Clue: Go alone at night to the nearest lime-kiln and throw in a ball of blue yarn, winding it off on to a fresh ball. As you come near the end, someone will grasp hold of the thread lying in the kiln. You then ask, "Who holds?" and the name of your future partner will be uttered from beneath.

In modern Britain, Halloween customs have merged with the bonfire ceremonies of Guy Fawkes day, on November 5th, when effigies of the conspirator who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament are burnt all over the country and fireworks set off.

In the United States, Halloween has become one of the most celebrated holidays of the year. It combines a harvest festival with the ancient associations of Halloween with demons and the souls of the dead. Today almost totally secularized, it has become a society-wide costume party. The practice of "Trick or Treat" has lost all conscious associations with the older practice, when fruit or candies were gained from neighbors, a relic of the custom of food offerings for the dead.

Modern Wiccans and Neo-Pagans have revived the eve of November 1 as the pagan New Year, which they term Samhein (pronounced "Sav-en"). It is the beginning of winter, and during the evening hours, the spirits of the departed seek the warmth of the Samhein fire. The day is a time of communing with the dead, but also a time of feasting and drinking in defiance of the approaching days of increasing darkness and cold.


Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. Eight Sabbats for Witches. London: Robert Hale, 1981.

Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.