As with every other major festival or holiday in the calender, there are countless customs, legends and superstitions associated with Halloween. Although the festival has links to Christianity, some of the superstitions surrounding it are (as is often the case) far older than that, dating back to the pre-Christian fire festival of Samhain, which marked the beginning of the Celtic new year.
Some of these are still practiced in one form or another today, others are more unusual or have fallen out of common usage. This Halloween, we’re going on a spooky journey through some of these seasonal traditions and superstitions, starting with one you will probably be very familiar with…
Pumpkins and Jack O’Lanterns:
There are several possible explanations for the tradition of carving pumpkins (or, traditionally, turnips) and placing candles inside them at Halloween. There appears to have been an ancient custom of using brightly lit lanterns to ward off the evil spirits which lurked abroad in the darkening days of late Autumn – modern Jack O’Lanterns may well be a reflection of this superstition.
“If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die. —
That strain again; it had a dying fall:
O, it came oer my ear, like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing, and giving odour! Enough! No more.
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before”
– Duke Orsino, Twelfth Night: Act One, Scene One
Without doubt, those are some of the most famous opening lines in the history of English literature. You may recognise them from your school days; from studying Shakespeare in English classes. Twelfth Night is easily my favourite of all the Bard’s plays; it is fun, subversive and full of mistaken identities, game-playing with gender (and thus, to a modern eye, sexualities too), and out-and-out Shakespearean farce.
Far beyond the ‘boring Shakespeare’ many of us encountered at school, methinks…
Written sometime around the turn of the 16th century (dating Shakespeare’s plays is not an exact science), and probably first performed in 1602 at London’s Middle Temple Hall in the Inns of Court as part of that year’s Christmas festivities, the plot of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night vividly echoes the riotous reversals and noisy fun of the real life medieval Twelfth Night holiday celebrations – in fact, it was written to be (and often still is) performed as part of these Twelfth Night celebrations