The History of All Hallow’s Eve
In 834, the evening of October 31 became All Hallow’s Eve when Pope Gregory IV established November 1 as the feast of All Saints, followed by a day in honor of her soon-to-be saints, the feast of All Souls. This time of year was chosen because it was the time of barrenness on the earth. The harvest was in, the summer done, and the world was brown, drab, and mindful of death. Snow had not yet descended to comfort and hide the bony trees or blackened fields; so with little effort man could look about and see a meditation on death and life hereafter.
Apparently how you spent the vigil of All Saints depended on where you lived in Christendom. In Brittany
the night was solemn and without a trace of merriment. On their “night of the dead” and for forty-eight hours thereafter, the Bretons believed the poor souls were liberated from Purgatory and were free to visit their old homes. The vigil for the souls, as well as the saints, had to be kept on this night because of course the two days were consecutive feasts — and a vigil is never kept on a feast.
Breton families prayed by their beloveds’ graves during the day, attended church for “black vespers” in the evening and in some parishes proceeded thence to the charnel house in the cemetery to pray by the bones of those not yet buried or for whom no room could be found in the cemetery. Here they sang hymns to call on all Christians to pray for the dead and, speaking for the dead, they asked prayers and more prayers. Late in the evening in the country parishes, after supper was over, the housewives would spread a clean cloth on the table, set out pancakes, curds, and cider. And after the fire was banked and chairs set round the table for the returning loved ones, the family would recite the De Profundis (Psalm 129) again and go to bed. During the night a townsman would go about the streets ringing a bell to warn them that it was unwise to roam abroad at the time of returning souls.
It was in Ireland and Scotland and England that All Hallows’ Eve became a combination of prayer and merriment. Following the break with the Holy See, Queen Elizabeth forbade all observances connected with All Souls’ Day. In spite of her laws, however, customs survived; even Shakespeare in his Two Gentlemen of Verona has Speed tell Valentine that he knows he is in love because he has learned to speak “puling like a beggar at Hallowmas.” This line must have escaped the Queen.
Tricks or treats
Begging at the door grew from an ancient English custom of knocking at doors to beg for a “soul cake” in return for which the beggars promised to pray for the dead of the household. Soul cakes, a form of shortbread — and sometimes quite fancy, with currants for eyes — became more important for the beggars than prayers for the dead, it is said. Florence Berger tells in her Cooking for Christ a legend of a zealous cook who vowed she would invent soul cakes to remind them of eternity at every bite. So she cut a hole in the middle and dropped it in hot fat, and lo — a doughnut. Circle that it is, it suggests the never-ending of eternity. Truth or legend, it serves a good purpose at Halloween.
The refrains sung at the door varied from “a soul cake, a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake,” to the later:
Soul, soul, an apple or two,
If you haven’t an apple, a pear will do,
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for the Man Who made us all.
Here they had either run out of soul cakes or plain didn’t care. Charades, pantomimes, and little dramas, popular remnants of the miracle and morality plays of the Middle Ages, commonly rehearsed the folk in the reality of life after death and the means to attain it. It is probably from these that the custom of masquerading on Halloween had its beginning.
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