How Hallowe'en has changed down the years

'Halloween', somehow the very word can create a sense of the unknown. Even today, after the years have rolled by, and childhood days are long past, it is hard to suppress a shiver when one thinks of the stories we were told by our grandparents in the distant past. It is when making comparisons with the children of today and the children of my youth that I wonder if it is the fact that they may be better educated in their pre-teenage years than we were that explains a difference in their attitude to such dates as Halloween. But then, the home has also changed.

Take away the street lights, remove the TV set and in some cases the radio from the home, banish the microwave and the computer along with the electric kettle and a few other modern gadgets, and for that matter try living with no electric light. Maybe then things would not be so different. I suppose there is truth in the old saying "We were reared to it". Reared to the dark nights of winter, when only the odd light shone from a window to break the surrounding darkness, when you seldom moved further than across the road or into a next door neighbours house.

The memory of those days is brought back when we drive through the darkness on a night when there is a power failure in the area. No twinkling lights to break the black shroud that encompasses the countryside, no cheery light to greet us in the window when we eventually reach home. If we are among the lucky ones we may have an oil lamp or a tilly but in most cases it is the candle to light us to bed.

It was in those conditions that we were brought up, and it was in those conditions that we were told stories of Halloween. In a way we looked forward to Halloween night with the scooped out turnip with eyes, nose and mouth and the candle stick inside to frighten away the evil one.

The turnip, or whatever was used, would be set up near the gate or the door and the flickering candle frightened us more than whatever it was supposed to scare. What really made us afraid and had us looking over our shoulder was the stories that were told about the souls who were abroad that night.
I can still hear my grandmother tell us that "The Souls were out tonight as thick as the sand on the sea shore." We were told, that although we could not see them, all members of the family who had gone to their eternal reward would be around the house that night and that they would have several friends with them.

We were not to tread too heavily on the ground because we could tread on some poor Soul who was still being punished for some transgression during life and was not allowed to fly as high as those who had already paid the price. This caused us to walk, to run, on tiptoe so as to keep as much weight as possible off the ground.

One of the things I remember about Halloween night was the way our parents left out something for the souls to eat and drink and we joined in the special round of the Rosaries that was said on the night. (I wonder how many houses is that tradition carried on in today). We often said a prayer ourselves for those departed and often mentioned the name of a relative who had been good in this life in the hope that he would not forget us in Heaven.

As we grew older we began to wonder more about the stories of Halloween. Was there any truth in the stories we had been told, did the Souls really come back from beyond the grave on that evening? Somehow we still feel that Halloween is the dividing line between brightness and darkness, joy and sorrow. To try to find out a little more about this strange time of year let us take a look at the stories and customs of other lands.

As the October days shorten and the nights grow longer a strange feeling comes over the land. Somehow the feeling of approaching winter causes fear of the long dark nights and the evil that can be remembered and the women keep their children a little closer to the fireside on the nights when the moaning of the wind seems like the cry of a lost Soul seeking freedom.

These are the days leading up to Halloween, eve of All Saints Day, the Festival of the Dead, eve of the Celtic New Year and the Festival of Fire. It's Winter's eve, the Dark Season traditionally begins on November 1st.

If we were to follow the ancient traditions, room should be lit dimly with candles (not brightly as at candlemas which celebrates the approach of Spring). It is this tradition which leads to the present day custom of placing dark coloured candles and other subdued lights in lanterns and pumpkins. Candle light is supposed to light the way for the dead when they return to their earthly home for one night to be reunited with the living through whose will and prayers the frontiers between the two kingdoms are broken down briefly.

In the old days, families kept vigil and ate little 'Soul' cakes. What is now known as 'Trick or Treat' used to be called 'Souling,,' which involved children going from door to door singing for cakes or money. Wine was also left out for the Souls of the departed even though it would not be drunk. A few lines from W.B. Yeats 'All Souls Night' illustrates this: 'For it is a Ghost’s right, his elements is so fine, being sharpened by his death, to drink from the whole wine.'

This custom dates back as far as Homer, who tells of the dead who could squeak like bats until Odysseys offered them blood to drink. (This was probably responsible for later myths involving vampires.)

Come to think of it, 31st October is the day preceding the Christian Feast of Halowmas, All Saints Day, while Halloween is associated with the Celtic Feast of Samhan. The end of the year and the beginning of Winter and the long dark days. That is why Halloween games are very old, and in most cases based on pre-Christian rituals. Apple and nut games go back to Roman times. Chestnuts were also roasted in the embers, 'omens' were revealed in the manner in which the chestnuts burst. In the earlier Christian times bonfires were lit to the dying sun and church bells were rung. Until the clock stuck midnight, then there was silence. This was also the time of evil spirit walking, the time of the Witches Sabbath which accounts for the element of fear. The further North you go the longer the nights and the harder the ensuing winter and the more fearful this festival becomes. Valpurgis night is full of swirling spirits and much supernatural traffic, with the good and evil not clearly defined.
In Mediterranean countries the fear element diminishes. Cemeteries are visited and bedecked with flowers, speaking of which we should remember Chrysanthemums are the 'flower of the dead' and you would not be thanked for them by the living.

It is also this time that the church liturgies and music are very beautiful. It is from now on that we go through the dark days of sorrow and mourning until the good news that the Christ child is born and we can look for brighter things to come and a new and badly needed calm to settle on a world to which He once said ' Peace to men of goodwill".

Willie White, Times Past
Courtesy of Carlow Nationalist