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
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
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 Ghosts right, his elements is so
fine, being sharpened by his death, to drink from the whole
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
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