The spookiest Halloween traditions you’ve never heard of

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By Patrick Ford

We might all be familiar with carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating, but there’s a rich history behind this spooky autumn celebration…

Halloween can be a chance to celebrate our dark side. We take a look at some of the roots and traditions and this curious festival – with some suitably spooky suggestions for you to try out…

Pagan roots

Originally marking the end of harvest, Halloween – formerly known as Hallows’ Evening and All Hallow’s Eve – is of course on October 31st, the day before All Hallows’ Day (November 1st). This time of year used to be for ‘honouring saints and praying for the recently departed souls’ – although now it’s more about spooky costumes and getting free sweets!

Similarly, the Gaelic custom of Samhain is on 31st October; a time to pay homage and tribute to lost souls, which occurs at the ‘liminal’ time, when our world is supposedly closest to the ‘otherworld’; creepy stuff!

The souls of the dead were said to revisit their homes in search of hospitality (although in 2020 they may wish to be careful – they’re probably not aware of the rule of six…).

A masked man with an open fire
The Gaelic Samhain festival is a time to pay homage and tribute to lost souls | Robin Canfield / Unsplash

Tricks and treats

Some say that everyone’s favourite Halloween activity – trick-or-treating (also known as ‘guising’ because of the disguises often worn) – has its roots in people impersonating the souls of the dead and receiving offerings on their behalf.

Three children with one plunging face into metal bucket with floating apples
Halloween apple bobbing is a sure chance for hilarity all round… | Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

There are some rather interesting Halloween traditions throughout the UK and the world – as if bobbing for apples wasn’t strange enough!

Back in the 19th century, some parts of rural England took part in ‘teen’lay’. No, it’s not a sleepy teenager – this involved someone holding burning straw on a pitchfork, whilst everyone else knelt around in a circle in prayer.

'... Adam and Eve would not believe, it's Punkie Night tonight.'
Traditional Somerset chant

The infamous Punkie Night is still celebrated in Somerset, where children parade around with jack-o-lanterns, singing:

‘It’s Punkie Night tonight
It’s Punkie Night tonight
Adam and Eve would not believe
It’s Punkie Night tonight.’

Apple bobbing is of course another firm favourite, which was often used in divination rituals – but did you know that in Celtic mythology, apples were thought to be linked to immortality? Maybe one a day will keep the doctor away after all.

A turnip for the books

A turnip hollowed out and with a carved face and candle inside
We think of pumpkins being carved for Halloween – but it used to be turnips, like this handsome fellow | Geni / English Wikipedia

Traditionally, jack-o-lanterns were made using hollowed-out turnips or mangelwurzels (yes, mangelwurzels). The fires lit inside these hollow vegetables used to serve two purposes: acting as beacons to welcome home returning souls and deterring undesirable demons from the home.

'The name is tied to the legend of Stingy Jack, a thief allegedly condemned by Satan to roam the earth with only a hollowed-out turnip to light his way.'

Jack-o-lanterns get their name from the folklore legend of will-o-wisps, strange lights seen hovering over our favourite peat bogs (at CPRE we love all things peaty – check out our explainer to find out why). The name is tied to the legend of Stingy Jack, a thief allegedly condemned by Satan to roam the earth with only a hollowed-out turnip to light his way.

Of course, it may be a little difficult to do the usual trick-or-treating during a pandemic – which is why we’ve got a few suggestions for some fun activities you can try…

Food for the soul

‘Souling’ – the custom of baking and sharing ‘soul cakes’ (which are much tastier than they sound) may even be the origin of trick or treating. Why not bake your own? Even better, you can try using locally sourced ingredients! The cakes are often filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, or ginger, and raisin or currants.

Did you know, souling is practiced in rural areas of the Phillipines, and is known as ‘Pangangaluwa’. And, in Portugal, soul cakes are known as Pão-por-Deus (Bread for God).

Round biscuits with a cross on each top
Soul cakes, like these, are traditional fruit biscuits with spices and dried fruit | Malikhpur / Wikipedia

Grow a pumpkin for next year

For those of you with green (or orange) thumbs, you could grow a pumpkin for next year’s Halloween. Here’s how. Starting planting around late spring, a pumpkin will take about 45 days to ripen. Before you make your Jack-o-lantern, think about how you can use the insides – here’s a recipe for a tasty cake to avoid any food waste!

If growing’s not your thing, there are plenty of pumpkin patches where you can go and pick your own – a lovely way to get out in the crisp autumn air.

Rows of bright pumpkins in soil
Picking your own pumpkin can be a great bit of Halloween fun | Josh Couch / Unsplash

Marroween?

Halloween is often observed as a meat-free day – so put those spare root veg for carving to good use and make a lovely, hearty veggie meal!

Make a costume out of recycled material

Of course, trick or treating may not be going ahead this year, or at least in a different guise (get it?). Either way, try making a costume out of the material you have lying around at home.

Spot some spooky critters

As many of us have found, the events of 2020 have really made us appreciate some of the fantastic nature our countryside has to offer. Try heading out at dusk to spot some bats, or seeing what creepy-crawlies you can find in the early morning.

Children play on a swing in a wood with red leaves
Autumn can be a good time to get out, kick the leaves about – and get spooky for Halloween | Annie Spratt / Unsplash

As the nights draw in, the weather gets chilly and we spend more time hunkered down inside, don’t forget to get out and about where you can. Whatever you’re planning this Halloween, we at CPRE hope you have a wonderful time, and stay safe!

A person holds a large carved pumpkin over their head
Zach Lezniewicz / Unsplash