The Heatley Cliff

Stingy Jack, Soul Cakes and All Saints: The Truth About Halloween

Halloween is my absolute favorite holiday, and we go all out here at the Heatley Cliff. The entire manor is decorated from front lawn to attic, with pumpkins, skeletons, ghosts, goblins and witches. Of course, we  have a masquerade every year, which is fabulous. I will be the Khaleesi from Game of Thrones (Sher’s great idea, feel free to steal) and Sher will be Pepper Zenter, the quirky, banjo playing daughter she’s always wanted (she has a son) – and since many people who work for us also play an Avenger of some sort, well… you can imagine Thor and his mighty hammer at your service, right? So fun.

But we are all about honouring our heritage and the traditions of our ancestors at the Heatley Cliff, which is why as a mostly Celt, I have a strong affinity for the roots of this holiday which, like Christmas and Easter, the Christians hijacked. It still makes the Evangelicals get all fire and brimstone-y, though, which is also kinda fun.

The seeds of this “holiday” are literally and metaphorically planted at the end of the Celtic harvest. In fact, according to the Pagan wheel of the year, it is the last of the the three harvest celebrations (the first two being Lughnasa, August 1st and Mabon, the Autumnal Equinox). The Celts called this day Samhain (pronounced not as it looks, but rather Sow-wen) and is technically the Celtic equivalent of New Year’s Eve.  For Agrarian societies, the end of the harvest was the end of the working year. It was a time to come in from the fields and from the cold. It was a shift from an outside life to an inside the house one. Any time such a shift occurred, the Celts felt the transition to be particularly magical. Their landscape changed as if by magic, and so they felt that much closer to the supernatural.

So what did our ancestors do to mark this time? They partied their faces off of course! Many of the traditions we have today for modern Halloween festivities are taken right from our rock ‘n’ roll Pagan ancestors. Death played a big role in their celebrations – it was the death of the crops, fallow ground and a time when the boundaries of life and death were at its thinnest. From a practical point of view, the Celts worried about food supply and winter, which could literally mean death if they were ill-prepared. Translate this notion into the metaphysical and you’ve got a bunch of folk trying to appease death, which suddenly felt that much closer without the sun and a the chill in the air. They did a lot of the old bait and switch. To protect the beasts they kept safe from the elements, they themselves would dress up like the animals they were trying to keep alive during winter.  “Look! Look! I’m a Cow Horse Person – follow me, tricky demons, minions of death! I will lead you far from where our real animals are!!!” Or they themselves would dress up as the demons as if to say, No, No, move along to another village, we’ve got this one covered, thanks!” Hence, the concept of costumes began. They would also leave a lot of food out to appease the gods (treats!) and folklore says they would have a massive communal bonfire which children would go from door to door collecting wood for, so that each member of the community was connected to the ritual. Children, being naturally furthest from death, had an important part to play during this time, just like they do today. And just as New Year’s Eve celebrations are generally about getting slosh faced and letting your hair down, so to were the Samhain parties of old.

And the Jack-O’-Lantern? Why, that is Stingy Jack, of course! According to legend, Stingy Jack was a miserly Irishman who skirted damnation by tricking the devil multiple times. When Stingy Jack finally died, unable to get into heaven (because he was cheap?), he fell down to hell where Satan could not take him either (due to earlier promises after being tricked). Satan was still was understandably annoyed, so he threw a burning ember at Jack’s head. Jack stuffed the ember in a turnip and wandered around as a ghost. Somewhere along the way, the turnip got upgraded to a pumpkin. So when you light a pumpkin this year, just know you are honouring a cheap bastard who managed to outwit Satan, Survivor-style.

Understandably, the Christians found it hard to compete with all this mayhem and partying. So they adopted, once again, the if you can’t beat em’, join em attitude. They moved their All Saints Day from May (still celebrated as Day of The Dead in Latin parts of the world) to November 1st. This was and still is the day where they honoured all the dead saints who had passed from the world. Hmmmm… Convenient.  And then, to further back up their claims on Samhain, they instituted All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. This day was dedicated to honor the regular, non canonized Christian dead, specifically those wandering souls in purgatory. Thus the concept of travelling ghosts and goblins, taken from Samhain, was legitimized by the Christians. Traditional trick or treating has it’s roots in Medieval times where Soul Cakes were prepared on All Souls’ Day and children would roam the streets “souling” going door to door begging for a cake. For each cake they collected they had to say a prayer for a dead relative. Nice.

So there you have it: the truth about Halloween – which, by the way, is a word that comes from “All Hallows Even”, Hallows being the Old English word for holy and Even being the Old English for Eve – All Saint’s Eve.

I prefer Samhain.

Join us the week at the Heatley Cliff where we talk about confections and weird Japanese candy.