Dusk which falls early, cooler winds which rise, dry leaves rustling around old gravestones. This last day of October, known as All Saints’ Eve or All Hallows’ Eve (now called Halloween), was a somber season, marking the very ending of the warmth of the earth and the long entry into a cold winter. Its ancient customs are a haunted mixture of Christian and pagan.
Originally celebrated in the middle of lovely May, All Hallows’ Eve was only moved to its present drearier date about eight hundred years ago.
It was a religious eve. In some parts of Europe, bells rang out at dusk for departed souls and people lit candles on graveyard tombs and left them burning all night in the darkness and solitude of the cemetery. In rural Brittany, four men would go from farmhouse to farmhouse ringing bells, asking prayers for departed souls. According to Polish custom, ghosts haunted empty churches at midnight. People would courteously leave windows and doors open the next day in case a ghost wished to come in.
All Hallows’ Eve is derived from the Celtic Night of the Dead. The Celtic people divided the year by four major holidays. The festival observed at this time was called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween); the Celts believed that this night, the souls of those who had died this past year were traveling their lonely way to the other world, and thus, for those few hours, division between this mortal world and the world to come all but vanished. Ghosts could walk the world and did.
In medieval England, on the 2nd of November (All Soul’s Day), children and the poor went “a-souling,” going from door to door to beg for a special little cake, marked with a Cross, called a soul cake. Each cake eaten would free a soul from Purgatory which, if you look at any medieval church painting, was a pretty terrible place. Turnips were also carved into lanterns as a way of remembering the dead. Soul cakes were left in graveyards to feed the dead and prevent any mischief they might be contemplating.
But why were the dead seen as malevolent? Perhaps because they so envied the living who were sitting home by their fires drinking warm ale? Was this the beginning of Gothic horror tales, stories of vampires and the dead arisen?
What do you think?
About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com.