Hallowe’en, or All Hallows’ Eve

Celebrated each year on October 31st, Hallowe’en means the Eve of Hallotide (1st and 2nd November) which was designated as a time to remember the dead.

The modern Hallowe’en developed from the two closely linked Christian festivals of All Saints (1st November) and All Souls (2nd November).

The last night of October, Old Year’s Night in the Celtic calendar, a night of witches and fires, was transmuted by the Church into the Vigil of All Saints or Hallowe’en. It was celebrated much more in the North of England, where people made lanterns out of turnips, disguised themselves in costumes, and ducked for apples and jumped for treacle scones. It was a time for ghost stories and games.

Hence, journeys had to be finished before sunset, and lighted candles were left burning all night in the stable to keep evil from farm stock, because Hallowe’en was the night upon which animals were allowed back into the homestead for winter.

Away from the farm, villagers were advised never to leave a door ajar or an unwelcome supernatural visitor might enter and remain with the household for life. And church bells were rung and bonfires lit to guide returning souls to Earth.

On Hallowe’en the old ghosts come
About us – and they speak to some.

It was a time for divination. Nut shells were burned and prophecies made from their ashes. Young ladies threw apple peel in the air to make the initial of their future betrothed when it landed.

Sprigs of Rosemary or Yew under the pillow would reveal their future husband in their dreams. Also, if you ate an apple at midnight whilst seated in front of a mirror you would see your future husband peeping over your shoulder.

Until at least 1890, Cornish greengrocers laid in stocks of fine Allan apples, the traditional gift for children at All Hallows.

“Hey ho for Hallowe’en
When all the witches are to be seen.
Some in black and some in green,
Hey ho for Hallowe’en.”

In some rural areas it was usual at Hallowe’en to serve a Mash of Nine Sorts to unmarried guests.

Assorted charms were added. Each guest was then asked to take a spoonful in turn to bring out a charm.

A coin for wealth,
A ring for marriage,
A button for a bachelor,
A thimble for a spinster,
A wishbone for your heart’s desire.
Halowe’en charms

From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
Cornish prayer


The Lord of Misrule

All-Hallows Eve was traditionally the day on which the Lord of Misrule was appointed for the Christmas to come. He would reign through till Candlemas, 2 February, known by other names, such as ‘The Master of Merry Disport’, ‘The Abbot of Unreason’, ‘Candlemas King’. It was his appointed task to ensure continuous merriment from New Year’s Eve through to Twelfth Night.

He was the personification of the spirit of disorder, fun and merrymaking which made the Christmas holidays something to look forward to in the Middle Ages, a welcome break during the hard winter months.


16th and 19th – 22nd January

16th January. The old Twelfth Night, and also the feast day of no less than three saints:

  • St Sigebert. A saint and King of East Anglia. He was forced into exile in Gaul, but following his step-brother’s assassination in 627 he returned to become King jointly with another half-brother. Later he rejected his kingdom and entered monastic life, but was forced to return when East Anglia was invaded by the Mercians, being slain in battle in 634.
  • St. Fursey. An Irish mystic monk who reputedly experienced visions of the afterlife.
  • St Henry. An English-born bishop of Uppsala, Sweden in the mid-twelfth century. After the Swedish King had invaded Finland Henry converted the Finns to Christianity and remained in Finland to supervise church building. After his murder in 1156 a number of miracles are reported to have taken place. His actual existence is disputed by some uncharitable folk.

Apple wassailing traditionally takes place around this time. It comes from the Saxon “was hael” meaning “to your health”. It was the time of blessing orchards to ensure a good crop in the coming season. At dusk songs were sung, cider poured over the tree’s roots, toast was hung in the branches for the robins to pick, to frighten off evil spirits, guns would be fired, horns blown and pots and pans banged, and bonfires lit.

Old apple tree we wassail thee
And hope that thou wilt bear,
For Lord doth know where we shall be
Till apples come next year.

To bloom well and to bear well,
So merry let us be.
Let every man take off his hat
And shout out to the apple tree.

19th January, St Wulfstan’s Day. c. 1008-1095. He served as Bishop of Worcester under the last two Saxon Kings and the first two Norman Kings. He started the building of the new Worcester Cathedral in 1084.

20th January. St Agnes Eve.

As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lilywhite
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of heaven with upwards eyes with all that they desire.

Keats 1819

22nd January. St Vincent’s Day.

Remember on St Vincent’s Day
If the sun his beams display
Be sure to mark the transient beam
Which through the casement sheds a gleam.
For ’tis a token bright and clear
Of prosperous weather all the year.