Halloween Histories: Local Practices and Origins


The blog of a project that explores potential material evidence for folk belief surrounding witchcraft and other malevolent forces would be missing a trick (I’ll steel myself against the temptation to follow this comment with a poor seasonal pun) if not providing a post for Halloween. I have on other blogs noted past beliefs and practices related to the Halloween Season (see the end of this post for brief descriptions and links).[i] But here it may be worthwhile to consider – albeit tersely – the origins of Halloween within the study areas of the Malefic Midlands project (the Midlands region of England in general, and Derbyshire more particularly), by exploring wider practices. Of special interest to MM is the significance of the church in developing these traditions (particularly in the light of frequent assertions – and for many, assumptions – of pre-Christian origins for the customs performed at this time – a matter to which I shall return below).[ii]

At this point, I must reiterate that, (as mentioned elsewhere on this website) time (and a dearth of other resources) precludes all but cursory investigation of the sources, which of course severely limits interpretation of the evidence. With the caveat in mind that I am unable at present to dig through the sources too deeply, research into other topics (in preparation for educational work) has occasionally led me to material of relevance to this project in general, and the subject of the Halloween season more specifically, including further information on local customs.[iii] So I’ll use this post to share at least some of this information, and related preliminary thoughts – though due to the unsystematic nature of this approach to the data, content may seem somewhat disjointed.

As present-day (mostly secularised) festivities seem to focus almost entirely upon the night of the 31st October (or the weekend closest to this date), I’ll begin by outlining the holy days of the Halloween season in which the medieval church engaged.

The Halloween Season

In the pre-Reformation ecclesiastical calendar (continuing in the Roman Catholic church), there were several services at the end of October and beginning of November that developed in to a short season of festivities. The first holy day – now known as Halloween (of which most readers will surely be aware) – takes its name from ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ (‘Hallow’ being a term for ‘Saint’ that was used locally at least into the 18th century),[iv] which devolved to ‘Hallowe’en, from whence the modern term. This feast precedes All Hallows’ Day on 1st November – a feast of remembrance for holy men and women. All Souls’ Day follows on the 2nd November, when dead friends and family were (and in some places are perhaps still) traditionally remembered. Together these festivals were known either as the ‘Hallowmas’ season, ‘Hallowtide, or Allhallowtide’, which here I shall refer to as the ‘Halloween season’, as this term may be more familiar to modern audiences (and when speaking of 31st October, continue to use the term ‘Halloween’).

Realisation that the medieval church held services at this time of year associated with the souls of the dead provokes numerous questions regarding the origin(s) of modern-day Halloween practices (that is, those performed by the general populace). When carrying out research on ‘Celtic’ and other identities, and on the role of ritual and memory in identity formation,[v] the notion of continuities in practices and beliefs from a prehistoric pan-Celtic culture has inevitably traversed my thoughts, from which I’ve concluded that more detailed, critical analyses at the local and regional levels might be informative.[vi] However, without first carrying out such work (and as I must dedicate my time to other areas of study, it is unlikely that I will be able to follow this line of inquiry any further), I must rely on the scholarly research by those who have conducted such research.

While much has been written on this topic, not all appraise (or provide) the evidence clearly and critically. Perhaps the best-known and -respected folklore historian of the present day is Ronald Hutton, and regarding the history of Halloween, the positions he advocates in his 1996 The Stations of the Sun seems to offer balanced analyses.[vii] So the following essentially summarises some of the conclusions he makes, alongside occasional presentations of local material that I have encountered elsewhere.

Halloween Origins

In sum, Hutton makes several points with regard to assertions surrounding the origin of Halloween traditions in the ‘Celtic’ festival of Samhain (some, he states, being ‘certainly correct, while most may be so’), before going on to examine the more common claims through analysis of early medieval literature, alongside more recent folklore and customs. From the early written sources, he concludes that there is no medieval evidence for a pan-Celtic festival, or religious ceremonies, taking place on the 1st November.[viii] In addition, Hutton states that, though the 7th –  10th century Irish text Tochmarc Emire (for which he suggests a 10th century date) mentions Samhain as the first of the four annual festivals, there is inadequate evidence to support with certainty the widespread declaration that this festival marked the end of the ‘Celtic New Year’.[ix]

As some see continuities of a pre-Christian festival of the dead within seemingly later, ‘Christianised’, practices, for church festivals of the dead seem to predate the Early medieval texts recording Celtic pagan practices – though does not deny the likelihood that prehistoric societies in what is now Britain engaged in festivals at this time of year.

In brief, Christian feasts of the dead appear to have evolved in the Mediterranean by the 4th century, with a feast, held in May, in honour of the martyrs. By c. 800, the church in what is now England held a feast in honour of all of the saints, now transferred to 1st November (and influenced by traditions developed by churchmen in Northern European). A mass for the souls of all Christian dead (held in February) was introduced in the 10th century, and as it spread over the following centuries was held on the day after the All Hallows’ feast (as All Souls’ Day, on 2nd November). As the Medieval era wore on, increased emphasis upon the notion of purgatory, and belief of intercession by the saintly dead upon the fate of ‘ordinary’ souls after life, led to development of the popular tradition of prayers for family and friends.[x]

There are evidently Halloween customs that were unlikely to have been part of church services, and which may have had a longer life. However, it is apparent that many were highly localised and regionalised. Many of the customs performed in modern day celebrations seem to derive from Ireland and Wales – such as the carved vegetable lanterns and costumes – apparently extending into parts of England during the 19th century (presumably largely due to economic migration, and increased travel), and via North America in the late 20th century. In reading of ‘local’ traditions, it also seems that at least some derive(d) from publications of folklore, effectively resulting in the spread and standardisation of customs across wide areas (see below).

With regard to this local region, of the older residents with whom I have spoken regarding the customs of their youth, none recalls the traditions with which we are now familiar, which they remember only very gradually introduced during and after the 1950s. As a child in the 70s, living in Derby, I only began to see ‘trick or treating’ at the end of the decade, and then it was practiced (and accepted) by a brave few. But we did have some of the traditions associated with Halloween at ‘Bonfire Night’ (and possibly other?) parties – including ‘apple bobbing’.

But, as indicated above, I am in no position to take these arguments further.[xi] What I now find of greater interest (particularly with regard to my research on antiquarianism in Derbyshire – which is still in its early stages) is how these festivals were perceived in the post-medieval era (especially the late 18th and early 19th centuries). This information is also of relevance with regard to another area of academic research in which I have been involved now for several years: that of charity and welfare provision (both areas of research also feeding back into the various topics on which I am preparing teaching sessions).[xii] This research has more recently narrowed to concentrate upon relationships between charitable action during the 18th and early 19th century in Derbyshire, and cultural, political and over the last few economic change – particularly surrounding relevant industrialisation and urbanisation (which I intend to develop in the New Year, hopefully for publication later in 2017).

In previous posts on another blog, I presented local folklore surrounding Halloween (here) and death (here), recorded in the late 19th century. Since writing these posts, I have only encountered a few brief references to local Halloween traditions, which are as follows.

More (apparently) local and regional traditions…

I haven’t read Elizabeth Eisenberg’s The Derbyshire Year since it was first published (back in 1989, when in my early 20s), but I’ve recently managed to get hold of a copy again. Although containing a range of information relating to seasonal customs, the author unfortunately doesn’t cite the sources (the volume is slim, intended for general readership as part of the ‘Derbyshire Heritage’ Series), nor the villages or other locations in which these traditions were performed, so is not particularly useful for my purposes. It is nonetheless interesting, and worth repeating, though only a little over a page in length, recording several traditions relating to Halloween (including the usual repetition of assumptions surrounding the ‘Celtic’ origins of the festival).

The section indicates that Halloween was also referred to as “Mischief Night”, with children tying together door handles, before knocking and running away; overturning water butts; removing tools and implements that had been left out; loosening farm dogs; and throwing unhinged gates into ponds or ditches [all similar to practices noted elsewhere]. It also relates a custom in some parts of Derbyshire [which are not recorded specifically] to lay out food and drinks, and leave the door unlooked, before retiring to bed, to provide sustenance for deceased relatives. Another was that those abroad at night would carry a rowan stick for protection.

Apple bobbing is mentioned, alongside divination using apple peels, whereby girls threw a complete strip over their shoulder; before looking at the peel on the floor (which would form the initial of their husband to be) they would recite:

I pared this pippin round and round,

Upon the ground to flounder;

My love to me it will reveal;

I hope he’s not a bounder.

Another divination rite was for girls to comb their hair in front of their bedroom mirror, while eating an apple [easier said than done!], awaiting to see their future husband revealed in the glass.

It has to be said that these traditions (and the words of the rhyme in particular!) appear quite recent, and bear similarities to those recorded in household books and other texts of the early 20th century – compare traditions recorded in the 1930s Everything Within, here.

The use of nuts for divination may be more localised (thought the the tradition does occur elsewhere). According to The Derbyshire Year, the girl would place a nut on the bar of the fire [suggesting a date for this particular form at least after the early 19th century, when this type of fireplace developed] saying

If he loves me, pop and fly.

If he hates me, lie and die.

The Derbyshire Year also records ‘guisering’ at Halloween, which I shall quote in full:

‘Children wearing grotesque masks or with blackened faces and carrying turnip lanterns went round guisering on Halloween night. One boy always wore a sheepskin representing the derby Ram with a sack over his head, the corners tied together to look like horns. Calling at successive public houses or performing in the Market Place, they would mime a play in which the ‘ram’ was killed by a ‘butcher’ while another guiser caught its blood.

               Then a ‘doctor’ took the stage. With wild antics and to the hilarity of the onlookers, he revived the ‘corpse’ before the players moved on to the next scene of action.’

This tradition appears to incorporate the potentially earlier local custom of ‘guising’ or ‘guisering’, with which many older residents of Derbyshire will be familiar; even in my childhood I saw guisers perform ‘mumming’ plays, particularly around May Day, and at Christmas and New Year (on which I might write in more detail elsewhere). However, with no mention of when or where this custom certainly took place, without further information its antiquity cannot be determined with any certainty. The influence of folklore recorded and published by antiquarian S.O. Addy in the early years of the 20th century in ‘reviving’ such traditions cannot be excluded.[xiii]

This collection perhaps reveals the trap that often seems to catch out some of those concerned purely with local histories and traditions. Without conducting comparisons beyond the local area, it is easy to assume that customs either still practiced, retained in memory, or recorded through studies of folklore, are only found locally, and (especially if less often or no longer practiced), ‘ancient’.

Providentially, in his nationwide study, Stations of the Sun, Hutton refers to customs of Derbyshire – including those for Halloween – that do seem to incorporate at least some element of local continuity over long periods. This work also notes a number of widespread, quite similar, traditions that often are assumed to be ancient and local, for which sources suggest derivation in the 19th or 20th centuries, influenced by migration and / or folklore studies. He mentions reference in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1768 to the custom of villagers in Findern near Derby lighting small fires on the common on All Saint’s Day, which they referred to as “tindles”. Hutton notes that this term may derive from Irish traditions, while this was not an area of Irish survival; and the custom was related to care of souls in purgatory.[xiv] Referring to a 1944 article in the local archaeological journal, he also notes that ‘tindles’ continued to be lit elsewhere in the county in 1868.[xv]



As it’s now nearing 9pm on the eve of All Hallow’s, I have run out of time, and must bring this post to a close.[xvi] From this brief consideration of what I acknowledge is a narrow range of evidence, the issue appears more complex than generalisations surrounding historic ‘ethnic’ cultures would allow. Much work has been done on prehistoric (and pre-state) notions of ‘belonging’, which numerous studies show is more often manifest through relatively small group identities; substantial communications networks are required for ‘shared experience’ to exist across large groups. The necessarily flexible nature of ‘tradition’ is also evident: customs only persist while they remain relevant, and are therefore subject to change alongside circumstances, if they are to survive.[xvii] Prior to extensive travel and mass media, Halloween traditions remain, unsurprisingly, local and regional; but with mass-movement, -communications, and -commerce, conventional customs might be seen across the Western World. The blend of pre-Christian, Christian, and ‘post-Christian’ practices that we see today reflect and to some extent sustain a range of identities for (post-)modern society; the form that Halloween traditions might take in years to come is less certain – if the festival remains relevant to future generations.


For more on Halloween, see:

The posts on my Notes of an Antiquary blog related local folklore (specifically the county of Derbyshire, and more generally the Midlands region), from the late 19th century study of Derbyshire antiquarian S. O. Addy,[xviii] the first (‘Derbyshire Folklore: Ghosts, Witches, Spells and Halloween Traditions’) collating extracts from his work that relate to Halloween practices. The second (‘Death, Burial and Belief in Derbyshire: Victorian Folklore, Superstition, and Ritual’), to commemorate All Souls’ Day, brought together customs relating to practices surrounding death and burial – though not necessarily carried out on this day. The most recent post (31 Oct. 2016) is ‘Victorian Humour and Horrors for Halloween: George Cruikshank’s Ghosts and Derby Ghost Scare’, which relates comments on ghostly pranks, and a ghost story, by Cruikshank in 1841; and sightings of a ‘ghost’ in Derby, Autumn 1885, and the ‘ghost’s’ come-uppance.



[i] See ‘Derbyshire Folklore: Ghosts, Witches, Spells and Halloween Traditions’; ‘Death, Burial and Belief in Derbyshire: Victorian Folklore, Superstition, and Ritual’; and today’s ‘Victorian Humour and Horrors for Halloween: George Cruikshank’s Ghosts and Derby Ghost Scare’; also a short post here.

[ii] Considering the importance of religious belief to many (and, consequently, the potentially inflammatory nature of discussion surrounding religion and spirituality), I wish to emphasise that this post sets out neither to oppose nor sustain any particular faith; and neither necessarily agrees with, endorses, nor contradicts, any of the views expressed in external links, or in third-party material incorporated within the post. No religious or political arguments through comments, please!

[iii] I am in the process of preparing for a series of public talks and tours, and publications – including those on Christmas; Antiquarianism; Love, Marriage, and Family; and Death and Burial – which I had hoped to deliver this year, but due to other commitments will now likely be delayed until 2017-18. If interested, see my freelance website; my Notes of an Antiquary blog; and other relevant sites (such as that of the Living in the Past Community Archaeology Project; and Past Sense Project), for more details, and notification of upcoming events and publications; also see my Twitter feeds (@Antiquary_Notes; @LIPCA_Project; @P_S_Project).

[iv] I must apologise for the absence of a citation here: I recently came across one of the five parish churches of Derby – All Saints’ (now the Cathedral) referred to as ‘All Hallows’’, I believe within a local history or gazetteer of this date. However, I have been unable to find the reference in time for publication of this post; if and when I do, I shall edit this note to include the citation.

[v] After 15 years extensive research (which was as full-on as could possibly be), my interest in this topic, and in medieval and earlier periods, have to say the least waned. Since my 2013 paper on myth and memory (reference here), I no longer pursue anything Celtic, or pre 16th century; I also try to keep identity studies at arm’s length, though it has a habit of sneaking into my work. I am consequently not up to date on Celtic Studies, and have very little to say (and have no inclination to engage in debate!) on the subject.

[vi] Primarily conducted as part of doctoral research (thesis ‘Ethnic, Social, and Cultural Identity in Roman to Post-Roman Southwest Britain’, available here), but also see other work, outlined here.

[vii] Hutton rightly critiques archaeological work that uncritically incorporates material that assumes the ‘survival’ of Celtic traditions; however, much more critical works has been undertaken within the discipline since publication of Stations of the Sun. In considering the prospect of ‘ritual’ continuity, my 2013 chapter, ‘Telling tales? Myth, memory, and Crickley Hill’, in Memory, Myth and Long-Term Landscape Inhabitation , (eds.) Adrian M. Chadwick and Catriona D. Gibson, explored the dissemination and transformation of tradition over long periods of time.

[viii] Much has been made of medieval references to pre-Christian practices, bearing in mind that before establishment of the church in the early Middle Ages, literacy was extremely limited; here is not the place to provide a scholarly literature review on this topic. Readers unfamiliar with, but interested in, this material might begin by reading James MacKillop’s 2004 Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford: O.U.P).

[ix] P. 361-2, 363ff. OUP paperback edition, 2001. Hutton dismisses the 17th century assertions of Irish antiquarian Jeffrey Keeting – which later writers seem to accept uncritically – as ‘thoroughly unreliable’, with evident inconsistencies and inaccuracies: p. 361, 363-64. He also notes that the performance of traditions at this time of year within (early medieval) Anglo-Saxon society is ‘difficult either to prove or dismiss completely’: p. 362.

[x] Ibid. pp.364-65

[xi] See notes iii, v (& ii!).

[xii] For my previous work on charity and philanthropy, see ‘In Darkest London: Investigating Destitution in the 1920s’, and ‘Ada Chesterton’s I Lived in a Slum (1936) – sensationalist reportage or valuable historical testimony?’, Voluntary Action History Society, (accessed 28-10-16).

[xiii] See S. O. Addy 1907 ‘Guising and Mumming in Derbyshire’, Derbyshire Archaeological Journal vol. 29, pp. 31-42 (accessed 31-10-16)

[xiv] P.373-74

[xv] Wilfred H. Holden, ‘Tindles. (A Curious Old Findern Custom)’, Derbyshire Archaeological Journal vol. 65, pp. 86-8 (accessed 31-10-16)

[xvi] Apologies for any remaining typos – I’ll hopefully find time over the next few days to check over the text again.

[xvii] See notes iii, vi & vii for my work, which incorporates extensive bibliographies; also see (a little dated, but still useful), e.g., Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1983; Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember, 1989; Eric Hobsbawn & Terence O. Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, 1992; James J. & Chris Wickham, Social Memory, 1992.

[xviii] Sidney Oldall Addy, Household Tales and Traditional Remains. Collected in the Counties of York, Lincoln, Derby, and Nottingham, 1895, London: David Nutt, The Strand.


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