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Re: Halloween

Poster: Kevin of Thornbury <kevin@maxson.com>

jsrechts@imap.unc.edu wrote:
> Anyone know about Halloween traditions during the Middle Ages? I also
> wonder if it's celebrated in Europe.
> Just curious as I know nothing about this topic!
> Lyanna


by Lady Muireann ni Riordain, MOAS Ponte Alto, Silver Nautilus
(From "Il Tempo", October 1997)

Actually, the title of this article is something of a misnomer. Many of
our modern Halloween customs have continued from the Middle Ages
virtually unchanged. Activities that were practiced then are still
carried on today, though the spiritual emphasis is no longer as
important to us. All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day, the two days
following Halloween, are not as widely celebrated now, while in the
Middle Ages they were just as or  more important. In fact, during the
Reformation, the feast of All Souls was removed from the Church
calendar, since many of its activities were considered distinctly
unChristian. It was placed back on the calendar in 1928; by that time
the general feeling was that it was no longer a superstitious danger. 
Halloween has its origins in ancient Celtic culture. It was the end of
the Celtic year, the end of the harvest season and the beginning of

It was believed that on this night demons, witches and evil spirits
roamed about, playing tricks on unsuspecting humans. One could avoid
being the victim of such pranks by either offering sweets or other
foods, or by disguising oneself as a demon and roaming the night
alongside them.

Hence, our modern custom of trick-or-treating in costume. The theory was
that the demons would take the human for one of their own and not
disturb him. 

There is also a Roman influence on the holiday. The custom of eating
apples, or giving them away, or bobbing for them stems from a
celebration of the Roman goddess Pomona. Children still bob for apples
by floating them in a large tub of water and attempting to grasp one
with their teeth and pull it out. In the Middle Ages, it was a
divination game. Each apple would be given the name of a potential
lover, and the number of tries it took to bite the apple foretold how
long the love would last. There is another, somewhat alarming in my
opinion, tradition that did not survive, or at least not as widely, in
which an apple was placed on one end of a stick, and a lighted candle on
the other. The stick was spun about at the end of a string, and children
standing in a circle had to try to grab the apple with their teeth as it
went past. They were often splattered with flying wax and grease from
the candle. 

Other divination games were played on Halloween night. Nutcracking was
very popular for this purpose. A couple soon to be married would place
two whole walnuts or hazelnuts in the embers of a fire. When the nuts
burst, if they make a loud crackling noise, it was considered a sign
that the love between the couple would be strong. If the nuts only
burned, that meant the love would soon fade and die. Guests at Halloween
revels would crack walnuts to foretell their future. If the shells
cracked cleanly and the halves remained whole, the person would have
good luck in love. If the shells shattered into pieces, so would the
love.  Another interesting medieval tradition was a type of mummer's
play that was performed at night. One person dressed as King Crispin,
who was actually Saint Crispin, the patron of Cordwainers, or shoemakers
who used Cordovan leather from Spain. He wore regal robes and a gold
chain, and carried a scepter. After the feast, a person acting as the
Surveyor asked King Crispin whether the mummers were allowed in.

Then the St. George's Play would commence. Afterwards, seven people
acting as "soulers" would collect soul cakes, which were small
shortbread cookies with currants, cinnamon and nutmeg. These were
considered to be refreshment for the souls of the dead, who were thought
to walk among the living on All Hallows Eve.

The day after Halloween, November 1, was All Saints Day. This was a day
to remember all of the saints, whether known or unknown by the Church.
It was a day of contemplation and pious devotion. At this time it was
recognised that there were any number of Christians who were worthy of
sainthood but for whatever reason were not sanctified by the Church. All
Souls Day, on November 2, all people who have died are remembered. A
legend has it that a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land was
shipwrecked on an island that was inhabited by a hermit, who told the
pilgrim that a cleft in the rocks led to Purgatory. The monk said that
he could hear voices of the souls claiming that Christians did not pray
hard enough for them to make a quicker journey to heaven. Apparently
they particularly wanted to monks of Cluny to pray for them. So the
pilgrim went to Cluny and told his tale to Abbot Odilo, who immediately
declared All Souls Day as a day of prayer and commemoration of those who
have passed before us.

So while the origins of Halloween and its religious emphasis have lost
some of their significance in our modern society, many of the practices
and customs have continued on in unbroken tradition. Many people no
longer believe in demons and evil spirits who roam the night, but our
school children still disguise themselves as such and are offered sweets
and  candy in exchange for exemption from pranks. And we still take at
least a moment or two to remember our loved ones who have gone before
us, in silent commemoration. 

Cosner, Madeleine Pelner, _Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A Calendar
of Celebrations_. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York; 1981. ISBN:

Green, Victor J., _Festivals and Saints Days: A Calendar of Festivals
for School and Home_.  Blandford Press, Poole, Dorset; 1978. ISBN:

Weiser, Francis X., _Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs: The Year
of the Lord in Liturgy and Folklore_. Harcourt, Brace &amp; World, Inc.,
New York; 1958. 

|+^+|  Kevin of Thornbury
|/+\|  (mka Kevin Maxson)
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