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Snap-Apple Night, painted by Daniel Maclise in 1833

9 forgotten Halloween traditions from the UK

Image: Snap-Apple Night, painted by Daniel Maclise in 1833

­Every year on 31 October, after dark, millions of people around the world go out dressed as vampires, zombies, and witches, and go, ‘trick or treating’ from house to house. Halloween is about gentle scares, creative costumes, and, of course, sweets. Although it’s seen today as quite commercialised and mainly for kids, Halloween has ancient roots. Some of these old customs are still in place, while others have been revived somewhat, but many of the old traditions are long gone.

Here we look at 9 forgotten Halloween traditions from British history.

1. Samhain

Samhain, meaning ‘summer’s end’ in Irish and pronounced ‘sarwin’, was for the ancient Celts the beginning of the year and the beginning of winter. It was celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on November 1st.

The Celts believed that on this night the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its weakest, and consequently, evil spirits and the souls of the dead would cross over. To keep these spirits at bay, masks were worn, bells were rung, and fires were lit. Homes and other buildings were adorned with certain green plants which were believed to have protective powers, and burning torches were carried. In Irish literature, this night has a strong association with fairies and the supernatural.

Later in the medieval period, the customs of Samhain merged somewhat with All Saints’ Day (1st November), which had been chosen by the Christian church as a day for remembering saints and other deceased church figures. Because this day marked the passing of the dead through Purgatory, this tied in nicely with some of the ghoulish aspects of Samhain. The night before this thus became known as All Saints’ Eve or All Hallows’ Eve.

An ancient Celtic and modern Gaelic festival, today Samhain is also observed by neo-Pagans and Wiccans.

2. Soul Cakes

For centuries a popular Halloween tradition across Britain was ‘souling’. This saw young people – often the poor – going from house to house and receiving specially-made spiced cakes, called ‘soul cakes’. In some areas these were more like bread, called ‘soul mass loaves’, and as late as the early 19th century the custom of holding on to a soul mass loaf was still going strong in the North of England. A lady in Whitby in 1817 owned a soul mass loaf that was 100 years old!

Each soul cake was supposed to represent the soul of a dead person from that household. The callers would promise to pray for that dead soul in exchange for the cake. In Wales, house callers asking for soul cakes were called ‘Messengers of the Dead’.

Halloween was also known for centuries in parts of Yorkshire as ‘Cake Night’, as it was traditional, in Ripon in particular, to make cakes on the last night of October.

3. Allan Day

For centuries in the ancient towns and villages of Cornwall, there existed the tradition of ‘Allan Day’. Not a celebration of people with that aforementioned Christian name, but rather an alternative regional name for All Hallows’ Eve, 31 October. The ‘Allan’ was the Allan apple, which would be brought to the Allan Market during the day and then placed under the pillow by the child during Allan Night.

This tradition was reported as current in St Ives as late as the 1870s.

4. Turnip Carving

The Victorians not only liked carving pumpkins at Halloween but other root vegetables too, including turnips. Pumpkins would sometimes be left on someone’s door – carved and lit (a jack-o’-lantern) – as part of an invitation to a Halloween party.

An 1897 book on English folklore stated:

‘The boys go about the village with turnip lanterns, which they make themselves, doing all kinds of mischief.’

5. Victorian Halloween Parties

The Victorians were an energetic and fun-loving bunch, but they were also generally a bit obsessed with death and the supernatural. Their Halloween parties were whimsical but very dark events – in more ways than one.

Seances could be found at Victorian Halloween parties, and guests arriving at the host’s home would find the house almost completely dark apart from a few low-burning fireplaces and jack-o’-lanterns.

The hosts might even be concealed in the darkness, dressed head to hoe in black cloaks. Guests liked to dress as witches, ghosts, and cats, just like today, but also as clowns and literary characters such as Little Bo Peep.

Tin snakes positioned over fires would appear to dance in the near-darkness, and horseshoes and apples would be hung from doorways and mantlepieces. Hosts would terrify their guests on arrival by offering them a fake hand to shake. These gloves, tightly packed with sawdust might even explode when grasped, increasing the shock.

Guests ate apples glazed in syrup, roasted nuts, and cakes.

6. Leeting

Centuries ago, people in Lancashire believed that every Halloween the Forest of Pendle hosted a large gathering of witches. These witches were said to gather at a ruined building called the Malkin Tower.

Local people developed what they believed to be an effective countermeasure to this assembly of witches. Volunteers would walk around the rugged fells and hills of the Pendle area with a lit candle. If the candle did not go out between 11 and 12pm, that person could hope to be free of evil magic for the year. This was known as ‘leeting’. Witches travelling to the Malkin Tower would try to snuff the light out, and if it did go out then the candle carrier would have even less protection from black magic than before.

7. Apple Bobbing

Apple bobbing (known as ‘dooking’ in Scotland and ‘ducking’ in northern England) was a popular Halloween game in Britain from the time of the Roman occupation, and even today some households still go ‘bobbing for apples’ at Halloween. The game is simple: take a large bucket of water and place some apples in it. Then kneel over the bucket and, with your arms behind your back, try to retrieve the apples with your mouth.

In ancient and medieval times this game was common at festivals, where young singletons would try to bite apples suspended from lines or floating in the water. The first to bite would be the next one to get hitched. Apple bobbing is also featured in the Celtic festival of Samhain.

8. The Fire straw

An old custom which was common in various parts of Britain, but had died out largely by the early 19th century, was the ‘fire straw’. The old tradition saw farmers and landowners go out on Halloween night into their fields carrying a bunch of straw. The straw would be ‘fired’, i.e. lit. This flaming torch would be wafted about while the bearer repeated spells, to ward off evil spirits and keep the crops from spoiling.

In Scotland, the spell would be performed by waving a stick about in the air. The end of the stick would be lit but not flaming, the red end representing the red berry of the rowan tree (held anciently to protect against witchcraft). The colour red is also in itself said to repel witches.

One fire-straw spell went as follows:

‘Rowan tree and red thread / To gar the witches dance their dead’. This spell was said to compel the witches to dance till they fell down and died.

9. Halloween Football

An old Halloween tradition in the coastal village of Cullen, in the north of Scotland, saw local youngsters doing something a bit different to apple bobbing and house-calling – they’d play football!

They would descend on the sandy beaches of the bay and play football, have running races, and play other active games. A piper led them from the village down into the bay. The winner would be crowned with a bonnet and amid much cheering and music, everyone would return to the village for a big party.

For more articles about the history and traditions of Halloween, check our dedicated Halloween hub.