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Why do we celebrate Halloween in England?

Back when I was a child in the 1980s and ’90s, the way we chose to celebrate Halloween in England (or, rather, our parents chose for us) was a little different to today. Now, with the internet and video streaming, primarily YouTube, Halloween here is very American (my little one has developed an obsession with some children’s Halloween YouTube videos – all of them from YouTubers in the US). There’s what I believe to be an unhealthy focus on the material side of the celebration – whether it be elaborate costumes bought from supermarkets and specialist stores as opposed to the masks and home made costumes we wore in the early ’90s, to houses fully covered in expensive ghoulish decorations, compared to the odd pumpkin lantern or, most of the time, nothing when I was a child.

Halloween is one of those festivals that can and will evolve. People chose to celebrate Halloween in England quite differently before my time too. It’s worth remembering that on the whole, folk were more religious in the early 20th century, and many Christians did not think well of Halloween, associating it with devil worship. Many still feel this way of course.

Vintage Halloween card

The origins of Halloween

It is hard to separate the differing traditions of the UK, as the recent history of the varied countries is so intertwined. There is no definite, carved in stone, known origin for the festival. We do know that the word Halloween, or Hallowe’en, comes from All Hallows’ Eve or All Hallows’ Even. All Hallows’ Eve is the day before the Catholic Holy day, All Hallows’ Day, which is now known as All Saints’ Day and falls annually on the 1 November in the Catholic Christian calendar. During the 16th century, All Hallows Even became shortened to ‘Hallow-e’en’, the name still used today. It wasn’t until the 19th century in England that this night became associated with ghosts and witches (fairies too) and this belief grew in the 20th century. As the nights draw in and we enter Autumn (fall to my American cousins) it’s not hard to see why in a way.

Why the association with the dead?

The reason that All Hallows’ Eve became associated with the dead, ghosts, witches and so on is debatable. There is nothing in Anglo-Saxon texts to give us any insight. Prior to the reformation under Elizabeth I, bells were rung on All Hallows’ Eve – though this was common practice on Christmas Eve and Easter Eve too. There is, of course, All Souls’ Day – which falls on 2 November. All Souls’ Day is the day when practising Christians remember deceased relatives. Traditionally, this was marked by mournful bell ringing – a call to prayer for the dead. This, like the bell ringing of All Hallows’ Eve and other significant evenings before celebrated days, was banned in England during the reformation. In fact, Elizabeth forbade all traditional observances connected to All Souls’ Day. This ban didn’t stop everyone of course.

The Halloween that developed later seems to be a combination of the celebrations of All Hallows’ Eve that took place in England, Scotland and Wales on 31 October and the more mournful, reflective, All Souls’ Day of 2 November, where people would pray for and remember their dead relatives.

The term ‘Allhallowtide’ is used to describe the three days encompassing All Saints’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’) and All Souls’ Day. As a matter of interest, ‘Hallow’ comes from Old English, ‘hālga, meaning holy man or saint.

Many celebrate Halloween in England by ‘trick or treating’

Trick or treating very possibly originated from the English tradition of ‘souling’. Predominant throughout Shropshire, north Staffordshire, Lancashire and Cheshire and taking place on either All Hallows’ Day or All Souls’ Day, soulers were initially adult beggars but in later times, children. They would call at houses and sing a song in exchange for whatever they could get – food, drink, money. The idea was that, in return for a gift, they would pray for the deceased relatives of the people they called on. The song that was sung at a house varied from area to area, but was usually something like:

Trick or treat

Soul, soul, for a souling cake,
I pray you, missus, for a souling cake,
Apple or pear, plum or cherry,
Anything good thing to make us all merry.
Up with your kettles and down with your pans,
Give us an answer and we’ll be gone
One for St. Peter, two for St. Paul,
Three for the man that made us all.

Sting performs ‘Soul Cake’ on Letterman in 2009

A soul cake was usually a round currant cake. It was a remnant of a pre-reformation belief where it was thought that souls needed to be helped out of purgatory and on to heaven by prayer and giving to others (known as alms-giving). Soulers would often dress in costume, known as mumming or guising. From the 1800s, lanterns made out of hollowed out turnips were carried, said to represent souls in purgatory. This tradition probably originated in Ireland and made its way to England via Scotland. On arrival in America, is was discovered that pumpkins were much easier to carve than turnips. This custom crossed the Atlantic and has been a favourite with people who celebrate Halloween in England since the 1990s at least. English Heritage recently put out an article reminding people not to forget the turnip at Halloween due to fears of a pumpkin shortage.

The earliest known origins of Halloween

We need to go further back in time still to find the origins of Halloween. To the early English, the Anglo-Saxons, October was Winterfylletð and November, Blotmonað. Winterfylletð (pronounced Winter-fill-eth) means winter full moon, because to our English ancestors, winter began on the first full moon of that month. At the time of writing, last night we had a beautiful first full moon of October lighting up the darkest places. Blotmonað was blood month, so named, according to Bede, because it was in this month that the cattle were slaughtered in devotion to the gods. There is no reference to the dead here, but the ancient British traditions – those of the Welsh, Scottish and Cornish, are a little different.

To the Welsh, Calan Gaeaf on 1 November is traditionally the first day of winter. The Cornish too, have Kalan Gwav which is the same in the Cornish language. In Scotand it is Samhuinn (Scottish Gaelic from the Irish Samhain). In these countries, on the day before 1 November, it was customary to avoid churchyards, stiles and crossroads as these were places that spirits could be found – in Wales, the 31 October was Ysbrydnos or ‘Spirit Night’, where the veil between the world of the dead and that of the living was thin enough for crossover and bonfires would be made and set alight.


There is record, however, of bonfires and torches being lit on these dates in England also, between the 16th and 19th centuries, in particular around Derbyshire and Lancashire where people would pray for the dead in open fields by firelight.

It’s also worth mentioning that in other pagan Germanic traditions, Winternights falls in October and Dísablót – a festival honouring the female spirits and goddesses, has been associated with Winternights. The early English, prior to conversion, were of course Germanic pagans. Could parts of Halloween in England hark back to this time through some folk memory?

All Hallows’ Eve was originally in May..

Prior to the year 835, the Christian All Hallows’ Day / All Saints Day was originally a spring celebration. In 835, Pope Gregory IV moved the date to November 1 – various reasons are given for this, but from then on it coincided with the old Irish and British Samhain / Calan Gaeaf / Kalan Gwav. The combination of these pagan traditions and the moved Christian All Hallows’ and All Souls’ Days appears to have, over time, led to our modern day Halloween celebrations.

For this reason, it’s worth remembering when you celebrate Halloween in England, it may have borrowed somewhat from North America today, but its origins lie around about these parts and your ancestors would have done something not too dissimilar hundreds of years ago.

Of course, looking back to the ’80s and ’90s, Guy Fawkes night or Bonfire Night on 5 November was a bigger event in England than Halloween. This seems to have changed round today. Whatever your thoughts on why we celebrate Halloween in England today, I suppose anything is better than the home-made-with-bin-bag costumes some of us wore in the ’80s…

I hope you’ve enjoyed that read. A lot of the information and more can be found in ‘A Dictionary of English Folklore‘, a book I recommend for anybody interested in the customs and traditions of England and the English.

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