The history of Hallowe’en

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LAST week’s frost was a little reminder of winter. Ahead of the cold winds, the fieldfares flew in, while the trees began to show a more interesting range of colours.

And on Sunday there’ll be another reminder when we put back the clocks.

But before that, comes Hallowe’en. The party food, pumpkins and ever-more-gruesome costumes are hard to miss.

Hallowe’en has mushroomed in recent years, probably because we no longer have family firework parties on the Fifth of November.

With the dark days approaching fast we’ve got to do something to defy the gloom, and Hallowe’en has one advantage over Bonfire Night: it can be celebrated indoors, which is where most people prefer to be these days.

Hallowe’en as we know it draws on many sources. The word is a contraction of All Hallows’ even, the eve of All Saints’ Day on November 1.

This Christian festival dates back to the eighth century and the following day, All Souls, to the year 1000.

On All Souls’ Day prayers were said for the souls of deceased relatives who were in Purgatory, a kind of limbo from where they might reach Heaven.

Various pagan festivals also heralded the dark half of the year, keeping supernatural forces at bay with bonfires.

In Ireland there was Samhaine, which spread to parts of Scotland; in Wales Nos Galan Gaea, winter’s eve; and in Scandinavia the Winter Nights.

Evidence for an Anglo-Saxon festival is hazy, but suggests an agricultural festival when surplus animals were killed before the winter.

Scary stories, animal disguises, fortune telling, vegetable lanterns and visiting customs all went into the mix.

In the 1900s Hallowe’en arrived in North America with Irish and Scots immigrants, and came to England through the works of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.

But in the south Hallowe’en remained largely ignored, until American cartoons and films introduced us to pumpkins and trick-or-treat.

Message in a bottle

No Hallowe’en party would be complete without its quota of witches, yet only a few generations ago people still feared their uncanny abilities.

It was vital to protect yourself, your animals and property against their ill wishes.

There were various ways to do this. Iron was believed to have special powers, and a handy source of iron was a horseshoe.

One would be nailed to the threshold or front step, or sometimes fixed on the back of the door.

To be really effective the horseshoe should be found, not bought, but as working horses often cast shoes this wasn’t a problem in the past.

Another popular charm against witches was the hag-stone, or adder-stone as it was known in the northeast.

This pebble with a naturally made hole was carried in a pocket, or hung over the bed to ensure untroubled sleep.

Whitby folk were known to tie small hag-stones to their door-keys.

When horses were found to be sweating and fretful in the morning, then witches had been riding them in the night. The answer to hag-riding was a large hag-stone placed in the stable.

Around 1690 witch balls began to appear in cottage windows. These were large glass balls with a metallic coating, or swirling coloured patterns.

Their purpose was to neutralise the “evil eye” by reflecting it back onto the witch.

But if the householder felt really threatened, he or she might try something more personal: a witch bottle.

The purpose of a witch bottle was to decoy and trap hostile forces.

Any old bottle or jar would do, but if it had a face on it, so much the better.

As the bottle represented the person making it, something of them had to go into it; usually this was hair, nail clippings, and urine.

Once attracted the enchantment must be kept inside the bottle, so thorns, bent pins, nails or tangled threads were added to ensnare the evil.

Then the bottle was sealed with wax, and hidden.

Many old houses had a witch bottle concealed somewhere, usually under the hearthstone or doorstep because these are places of access.

Over 200 are known of in museum collections and they still turn up during renovations. Who knows, there could be one hidden in your home.

Correction: Last week’s picture was of a greylag goose, not a pink-footed goose as stated in the caption.

Thanks to the eagle-eyed reader who spotted the feathered impostor.