Today (31st October) is, of course, Hallowe’en. The name is a corruption of ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, or the evening (vigil) before All Hallows or All Saints’ Day in the Christian calendar on the 1st November. The 2nd November is All Souls’ Day. All together, the Eve and the two Days are called ‘Hallowtide’ or ‘All Hallowtide’, or ‘Hallowmas’, and form an important festival of commemoration for all the saints and for all Christian souls. The 1st November is also the date of Samhain, an ancient pagan festival of the dead, which the early Church appropriated. Samhain marks the third and final harvest of the year, the beginning of winter and the ancient new year; it is celebrated from sunset on the 31st. The Roman festivals of Parentalia and Pomona are also cited as being forerunners of Hallowe’en. The 31st October is also ‘Reformation Day’, which commemorates the nailing of ‘The 95 Theses’ on the door of Wittenburg church by Martin Luther in 1517. Hallowe’en was the most important time of the year for forecasting the future, and it used to be seen as the beginning of the process which culminated in Christmas. In England, the 4th November used to be the medieval ‘Mischief Night’ and the 5th November is now, of course, Bonfire Night. Hallowe’en, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day lead up to the 11th November, which is Martinmas or St Martin’s Day* in the Christian calendar, the day on which livestock animals were traditionally slaughtered ahead of winter. It was an important point in the agricultural year. Since 1918, the 11th November has also been commemorated as Armistice Day, in honour of the British and Commonwealth Service personnel killed in WW1 and also, now, for the Service personnel killed in WW2 and subsequent wars. (The Armistice – the peace treaty which ended WW1 – was signed on the 11th November 1918.)
Hallowe’en traditionally combined Christian rituals with pre-Christian beliefs that, on one day or night of the year, the souls of the dead returned to their former homes and had to be received. Bonfires and candles in lanterns may have been burned to light their way or to protect against evil spirits which were also out and about on that night, or derive from the marking of the end of the year and the pagan new year. In the past, the Church’s Hallowtide celebrations consisted of the Vespers, Matins and Lauds of the Dead on the evening of the 1st November, and the Requiem Mass on the 2nd November. The priest and the altar would have been dressed in black, and a catafalque surrounded by burning tapers would have stood in the main part of the church. However, in modern Christianity, All Hallows is a celebration of life, a happy time to remember the dead and to pray for their souls.
Hallowe’en is a very complicated festival and it is celebrated with different folk rituals all over Britain. The central rituals seem to have been ‘souling’, charity and the giving of ‘soul cakes’, apples and nuts, apple-bobbing, lanterns, and bonfires. (‘Soul cakes’ are actually biscuits, made with butter, sugar, egg yolks, flour, some milk, spices, and currants.) As a modern event in Britain and the US, Hallowe’en involves skeletons, witches, ghouls and ghosts, zombies, and partying with the ‘dark side’…
So, after Hallowe’en, over the weekend, perhaps we should all go and visit some of Colchester’s great medieval churches and former churches – St Peter’s, St James’, St Mary-at-the-Walls, Holy Trinity, St Martin’s, and All Saints’ – and try to imagine the requiem masses and funereal rituals of Hallowtide which were celebrated there for centuries. (Or, if you want some real horror, you could go to Colchester Castle and remember the people who were executed there or who died there, victims of the dark side of religious conflict.)
* Interestingly, St Martin of Tours was a 4th-century Roman soldier who converted to Christianity. Martinmas was the ‘blood-month’, when livestock animals were slaughtered and people feasted on fresh meat for the last time before being restricted to salt meat in the winter and before the 40-day fast of Advent. St Martin was, apparently, martyred and then carved up like an animal. He was the patron saint of the poor but, also, of tavern-owners and wine-makers.