Known as Old Hallowmas, All Hallow’s Eve, Hallow E’en, Walpurgis Night and the Day of the Dead, this creepy night preceding All Hallows Day (November 1st) was considered by the Celts to be one of the most important days of the year, representing a mid-point (Samhain, or “summer’s end”), when the dark half of the year commences. The sun is at its lowest point on the horizon as measured by the ancient standing stones of Britain and Ireland — the reason the Celts chose Hallowtide rather than Yule as their new year. This first day of winter, the Witches’ New Year, symbolised that the Old King was dead; the Crone Goddess mourned him greatly during the following six weeks. As the turning point of the year, with the onset of the dark phase of the year, Hallowtide was a time for beginnings and endings.

Considered to be the third and final harvest — the harvest of meat — herders led the cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to the shelter of stable and byre. The hay that would feed them during the winter must be stored in sturdy thatched shelters, tied down securely against storms. Country folk slaughtered cattle and other livestock for eating in the winter months. Any crops still in the field during Hallowtide were considered taboo, and left as offerings to the Nature spirits. The Anglo-Saxons called November Wind monath, because it was the time when the cold winds began to blow. They also called it Blod monath due to the slaughtering of cattle for winter food.

On All Hallow’s Eve, one of the most magical nights of the year, the veil between worlds was considered to be at its thinnest. Known as one of the two “spirit-nights” each year (the other being May Day), the dead walked, ghosts and ghouls haunted, witches cast evil spells, the Devil roamed, and dark fairies (hobgoblins, kobolds, sprites, brownies, elves) emerged from their ‘fairy mounds’ to make mischief. Whereas Midsummer was welcomed in the summer light with joyous celebrations at dawn, the most magically potent time of Hallowtide was at night. The Celts believed that the normal laws of space and time were held in abeyance during Hallowtide: a special window where the spirit world could intermingle with the living, and deceased loved ones could return to the land of the living to celebrate with their family. People thus honoured their ancestors on this ‘Feast of the Dead’, along with respect for the dark mysteries, and rebirth through death.

Hex and hag and crone and bell,
Bless this cauldron and stir it well…

The great burial mounds of Ireland were lit up with torches lining the walls, so the spirits of the dead could find their way. The Celts left their windows, doors, and gates unlocked to give the dead free passage into their homes, and placed food offerings on altars and doorsteps for the “wandering dead”. Often a torch was lit and carried around the boundaries of the home and farm, to protect the property and residents against the spirits throughout the winter. Single candles were placed on windowsills to help guide the spirits of ancestors and loved ones home. Extra chairs were set to the table and around the hearth for unseen guests. Apples were buried along roadsides and paths for spirits who were lost or had no descendants to provide for them. Turnips were hollowed out and carved to look like protective spirits, for this was a night of magic and chaos. Traveling after dark was was not advised. People dressed in white like ghosts, wore disguises made of straw, or dressed as the opposite gender in order to fool the Wee Folk. Tradition held that on All Hallow’s Eve, all the witches of Scotland gathered together to celebrate, prophesy, and cast their spells. They could be seen flying through the air on broomsticks and eggshells, or riding black cats, ravens, or horses on their wild Hallowmas Ride.

On Hallowmas Eve, ere ye boune to rest,
Ever beware that your couch be blest;
Sign it with cross and sain it with bread,
Sing the Ave and the Creed.
For on Hallowmas Eve, the Night Hag shall ride
And all her nine-fold sweeping on by Her side,
Whether the wind sing lowly or loud,
Stealing through moonshine or swathed in cloud.
He that dare sit in St. Swithin’s Chair,
When the Night Hag wings the troubled air,
Questions three, when he speaks the spell,
He must ask and She must tell.
– Sir Walter Scott

Villagers brought harvest food and sacrificed animals to share a communal dinner around huge sacred bonfires lit by the Druids (or ‘bone-fires’, as the bones of the slaughtered cattle had been cast upon the flames as offerings for healthy and plentiful livestock in the New Year). Many sacrifices and gifts were offered up in thanksgiving for the harvest. Fortunes were told, and costumes (usually animal heads and skins) were worn. Stones were marked with peoples names and thrown into the fire, to be retrieved in the morning. The condition of the retrieved stone foretold of that person’s fortune in the coming year. With the great bonfire roaring, the villagers extinguished all other fires. Each family then solemnly lit their hearth from the one great common flame, bonding all families of the village together. After the festival they re-lit the fires in their homes from the sacred bonfire to help protect them, as well as keep them warm during the winter months. The ashes were spread over the harvested fields to protect and bless the land.

Many Irish and Scottish Celts appeased their dead with a traditional Dumb Supper. On Samhain Eve, supper was served in absolute silence, and one place was set at the head of the table “for the ancestors”. This place was served food and drink without looking directly at the seat, for to see the dead would bring misfortune. Afterwards, the untouched plate and cup were taken outside “for the pookas”, and left in the woods.

Hallowtide was a time for apple magic and fortune telling. Apples were the fruit of the Other World, a land sometimes called Avalon or Avallach — the Isle of Apples. A young woman would peel an apple all in one paring, and throw it over her shoulder on Samhain Eve. The peeling would take the shape of the first initial of the man she would marry. Eating an apple in front of a mirror while combing your hair will conjure your true love’s image in the mirror. Bobbing for apples (‘apple-dooking’ or ‘dunking’) was a traditional pastime, referring to the Celtic Emhain Abhlach, “Paradise of Apples”. Apples are placed in a tub or barrel of water, and dunkers will try to retrieve these apples with their teeth. Those who succeed will have good fortune the following year.

    • Young people would put on strange disguises and roam about the countryside, pretending to be the returning dead or spirits from the Otherworld.  Boys and girls would put on each other’s clothes, and would generally flout convention by boisterous behavior and by playing tricks on their elders and betters.
    • The last Sunday of the Church Year, or the Sunday before Advent, is often called ‘Stir-up Sunday’. Stir-up Sunday is the traditional day for everyone in the family to take a turn at stirring the Christmas pudding, whilst making a wish.
    • St Cecilia’s Day (November 22) was a traditional day for concerts and recitals. St Cecilia was a Roman maiden who was martyred in the second or third century, and being the patron saint of musicians, she is usually portrayed with an organ. Her story is told in the ‘Second Nun’s Tale’ in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The term jack-o’-lantern is in origin a term for an ignis fatuus or will-o’-the-wisp in English folklore, used especially in East Anglia. Celts carved the scary faces of spirit-guardians onto turnips, large beets or potatoes and set these “jack o’lanterns” in their windows or in front of doors to keep out unwelcome visitors from the Otherworld, such as ‘Stingy Jack’ and other wandering evil spirits. In Irish folkfore, the jack o’lantern was used as a light for the lost soul of Jack, a notorious trickster, stuck between worlds. Jack is said to have tricked the Devil into getting trapped inside a tree trunk by carving an image of a cross on the bark. His pranks denied him access to Heaven, and having angered the Devil also to Hell, so Jack was a lost soul, trapped between worlds. As a consolation, the Devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the darkness between worlds.

Oh! — fruit loved of boyhood! — the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
– John Greenleaf Whittier

On November 11, Martinmas Day, everyone enjoyed a traditional beef dish. The Feast of St Martin was a time for celebrations with great feasts and hiring fairs, at which farm labourers would seek new posts.  If the wind was in the south-west, it was believed to stay there right through to Candlemas in February, thus ensuring a mild and snow-free winter: “If the leaves of the trees and grape vines do not fall before Martin’s Day, a cold winter may be expected”. It was also the time when autumn wheat seedling was usually completed in many places. In south Derbyshire it was the farmer’s custom to provide a cakes-and-ale feast for workers. These special cakes were made with seeds and whole grains, and called Hopper Cakes.

During the 19th and 20th centuries children would go ‘souling’ — rather like carol singing — requesting alms or soul cakes:

A soul, a soul, a soul cake.
Please good missus a soul cake.
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us merry.
Up with your kettles and down with your pans
Give us an answer and we’ll be gone
Little Jack, Jack sat on his gate
Crying for butter to butter his cake
One for St. Peter, two for St. Paul,
Three for the man who made us all.

The ‘Soulers’ would go around the houses singing this song and often joined by their old friend, the hobby horse – only at this time of the year, he was called the Hooden Horse. A Soul Cake is like a hot cross bun but without the currants or the cross on top.

175g butter, softened (6 oz)
175g caster sugar (6 oz)
3 egg yolks
450g plain flour (1 lb)
Pinch salt
1 tsp ground mixed spice, or ground allspice
Warm milk

Oven: 180 °C / 350 °F / Gas 4. bake 20-25 minutes.
Cream the butter and sugar together in a bowl until fluffy, then beat in the egg yolks. Sift flour and spices, add and mix to a stiff dough. Knead thoroughly and roll out, 1/4 inch thick; cut into 3 inch rounds and set on greased baking sheets. Prick cakes with a fork and bake; sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar while still warm.

Excerpt from Tales of Wych Elm Gate

Evening had fallen and the stars had appeared, ice-cold and glittery against the pitch-black darkness, when the great bonfire was finally lit. It crackled and snapped, orange flames leaping as high as the treetops, and sparks whirled away into the night sky and beyond. Toothy Jack O’Lanterns had been carved and stood in a row on the stone orchard wall, candles burning inside them, and the labourers and farmhands were bobbing for apples in Mother’s washtub. A long wooden table had been set up under the darkly silhouetted apple trees, piled high with steak-and-kidney pie, cold tongue, jellied eels, cheese dumplings, mushrooms and onions, barley bread and gingerbread, all steaming hot under the light of a sputtering old candelabrum. Laughter and fiddle music rang through the trees – everyone was there, warming their hands with mugs of mulled wine, darkly outlined against the bonfire’s glow. In the middle of the hubbub stood Father, tall and proud, on his happiest night of the year. He was bone-tired and his clothes were still covered with dirt from the day’s labour. His hands were chafed and raw, his eyes bloodshot and watery. But despite the backbreaking work, his shoulders were thrown back proudly and his roaring laughter could be heard all the way down the valley. He held his leather hat in his large, weathered hands and spoke warmly to each of the men who had helped him harvest six hundred bushels.
“A good crop, fine weather and a speedy harvest,” he said to Farmer Trickett. “Such a year might not come again for many a moon.”
Mary Brook bustled toward Bess and Petunia with flour on her nose. “Quick, girls, steal away with me a moment and we’ll carve us some apple magic.” They were quickly joined by Polly, Ettie Everdon from the Dairy and Dick Wensley’s little sister Elsie May.
“Now,” said Mary, drawing a knife from her pocket. “Each of ye take an apple from the table and remove the peel in a continuous length. When the first strip of peel falls to the ground, it will form the initial of the person you are to marry.”
“Oh, what fun!” said Ettie.
“Mine’s already broke,” pouted Elsie May, fumbling with the knife.
“Here, lovie, I’ll help you,” said Mary, and together they peeled a long, thin red strip.
“What does mine say?” asked Petunia, frowning.
“That’s a Z,” said Mary. “Very outlandish. Perhaps you’ll travel to one of them Araby countries and marry a man with a scarf on his head.”
“I should think not!” said Petunia crossly.
Bess and Ettie were still fumbling away when Polly’s apple peel dropped to the leaf-mould, and Mary lowered her lantern to see.
“Why, that’s an S, lass. Clear as day.”
“Who do you know who starts with S?” asked Ettie.
“Oh, I know!” exclaimed Bess happily. “It must be Sa–”
Shush, Bess!” stormed Polly.
“It’s most probably that awful Irish character, Seamus O’Keeffe,” proclaimed Petunia. “He’s over there now, getting intoxicated on your father’s cider.”
The girls stood aside as Father, Will and four ale-smelling labourers carried the final apple barrels down the garden path, through the kitchen door and into the root cellar.
“Is that all they managed to pick?” asked Petunia.
“Of course not,” said Bess. “Father said they harvested six hundred bushels. The carts have been coming and going from the Village all week, loaded fit to burst. Just think – some of our apples might be eaten by sailors, sailing far across the seas!”
“So I suppose those are the leftovers, then,” Petunia sniffed.
“We always keep a few barrels for ourselves,” said Bess. “Come down to the cellar and I’ll show you.”
Underground in the chill dark, Bess’s lantern light danced bewitchingly against the damp walls. The men had rolled the barrels in a smart line against the back wall, with some ugly misshapen catshead apples thrown into a basket alongside. There were yellow Sturmer Pippins and vanilla-flavoured St Edmund’s Pippins, mint-green Golden Nobles and tart Warner’s King apples. There were the oversized cooking apples, Bramley’s and Lane’s Prince Albert, and shiny cider apples, Foxwhelp and Tremlett’s Bitter. Bess’s favourite of the lot, Cellinis, tasted like aniseed lollies. All the apples’ stems were still intact to help them last longer; here and there, a pretty apple leaf peeked out.
“Your cellar is spooky,” said Petunia, frowning at the rammed-earth walls.
“I know,” said Bess. “Sometimes I like to scare myself by imagining that a servant girl was locked down here in olden times, and her bones lie under the stone floor.”
“Oh, yes,” said Petunia, warming to the theme. “She talked to the rats and went mad scratching on the walls to get out.”
Bess shivered.
“Her ghost is here,” Petunia whispered, her large green eyes narrowing as she gazed around the corners. “I’m sure of it. The air is moving – there! Did you feel that?”
Bess whipped around and gasped for breath. “Where? I was only making that up, Petunia!”
Petunia narrowed her eyes. “I know all about ghosts. There’s one upstairs in my Great Aunt Elinor’s house that wails and wrings her hands, because her husband murdered her. We always leave a plate of food out for her on All Souls Night. And I’m fairly sure there’s a ghost – actually, more than one ghost – living in this cellar.”
“Are they… friendly?” asked Bess. The lantern light quivered, the inky-black shadows wavered; she could scarcely breathe.
“Oooooh,” said Petunia, screwing up her face and closing her eyes, as if listening to sounds that Bess couldn’t hear. “I wouldn’t exactly say friendly… Can’t you hear the moaning?”
“P – Petunia,” said Beth, her teeth chattering. She clutched her cousin’s silk shawl. The muffled sounds of hobnailed boots criss-crossing the floorboards could be heard overhead, but that didn’t matter. Bess was so frightened she could hardly move.
“It’s all right,” said Petunia, patting Bess’s arm. “I know just the thing! I brought my Saint George charm with me. I’ll run upstairs and get it. We’ll wave it around and recite some psalms and all the ghosts will dissipate.”
“Are you sure?” asked Bess, who wasn’t sure what dissipate meant.
“Of course,” said Petunia. “I’ll just be a moment.”
Bess turned around. “Petunia?” But Petunia’s sage-green dimity had disappeared up the cellar steps in a flash, and Bess was already alone in the cellar.
“Wait!” she yelped. “Take me with you!” She clattered up the staircase, waving the lantern crazily in all directions, her heart pounding in her chest. But when she reached the top and slammed her fist against the heavy door, it wouldn’t budge.
“Petunia! Open the door!” shrieked Bess.
“Certainly,” came Petunia’s voice from the other side. Then: “Oh, dear. It seems to have locked itself behind me.”
“The key!” choked Bess. “Turn the key in the lock and let me out!”
“There isn’t any key,” said Petunia. “It must have come loose and fallen onto the floorboards. Wait a moment and I’ll have a look.”
“But the ghosts!” yelled Bess. “ Hurry up, Petunia!”
“Oh, I just made that up, silly,” said Petunia. “There’s no such thing as ghosts, Bess. Don’t be daft.”
Bess chewed her fingernails and pressed her back against the door, holding the lantern out in front of her. “Go away,” she whispered to the dank, silent cellar. Of course there were ghosts. In the far corner, she could hear the slimy water dripping steadily. Her hands were trembling so badly, the lantern rattled and glimmered.
“Did you find the key, Petunia?” Bess asked, but there was no answer. In the distance, she could hear Mother banging the coppers and Mary Brook gathering the cutlery and Aunt Drusilla pushing the kitchen chairs around – squeeeak! – on the stone floor. But inside the cellar, it was as silent and muffled and mildewy as a tomb.
“HELP!” roared Bess, but her voice sounded very small against the earthen walls. She banged on the door: thump, thump! “Let me ouuutttt!”
She hated Petunia. She was never going to talk to Petunia again – that’s if she got out of the cellar alive on this night, All Hallow’s eve, the most haunted night of the year. If there weren’t any ghosts in the cellar now, she was sure that a few wandering ghouls would surely see her lamplight and appear at any moment…
Suddenly the door flew open and Polly gazed down at her, slim hands on hips. “What are you doing down there, making such a racket?” she demanded.
“Oh, Polly!” cried Bess, throwing her arms around her big sister. “Petunia closed the cellar door while I was still inside and accidentally lost the key!”
“Nonsense,” said Polly, untangling herself. “It’s right here in the lock, where it always is.”
Bess looked, and Polly was right. Petunia had twisted the key and locked her in on purpose.
“Petunia is a beast,” said Bess, with tear-stained eyes.
“I know,” sighed Polly, leading her little sister back to the cheery kitchen. “But imagine how you would be if you’d grown up with eight brothers.”