The History of Why We Celebrate Halloween in the UK
We spoke to the co-founders of 'Folklore Thursday' to learn more about folklore as personal escapism, shared history and whether memes count as modern examples.
Kids on Halloween in 1930s Germany. Photo: Kirn Vintage Stock / Alamy Stock Photo
Folklore, despite mostly being associated with childhood fantasy and fairy tales, represents a deep connection to both the past and the present. That's especially true in Western cultures, where the loss of verbal storytelling and alienation brought about by technology has prompted us to look for meaning in old or esoteric practices – like astrology, tarot cards and even horse therapy.
It's in this spirit that historian/author Willow Winsham and archaeologist/author Dee Dee Chainey started Folklore Thursday – a Twitter account that uses its eponymous hashtag as a way for people with an interest in folklore to share beliefs, customs and traditions that once would have been passed down through word-of-mouth. The hashtag prompts thousands of posts every week, but a quick scan of recent submissions will throw up an old Serbian/Bosnian wives' tale about a dead man's eyeball, a link to a piece about Japanese Bathroom Ghosts and a warning that you should never interfere with rocks without first consulting the "hidden folk". The first hashtag day was in June of 2015 and, thanks to its popularity, was swiftly followed by a website that provides a more permanent home for some of its meatier subject matter.
While a preoccupation with folklore has always persisted one way or another (everyday examples include singing happy birthday, wetting a baby's head after a birth and the name of your local pub, if it’s been there long enough), there has been a more conscious resurgence in interest in recent years. #FolkloreThursday isn't alone in its reflection of this – in the UK, The Museum of English Rural Life is having a moment both on Twitter and off since its redevelopment in 2016; The Folklore Society and Centre Parks (which has a site at Robin Hood's infamous stomping ground, Sherwood Forest) commissioned a study into the future of British folklore last year; and the University of Hertfordshire just launched the first MA in Folklore Studies in England in nearly a decade.
Willow Winsham describes the recent trend as "the excitement in rediscovering things that have been lost or taken for granted, reformed and presented afresh for a receptive, modern audience". She adds: "This reawakening feels like something of an antidote to the busy, high pressure whirl of life today, which might explain in part why this revival has taken place now."
To learn more, I spoke to Dee Dee Chainey and Willow Winsham about folklore as personal escapism, shared history, and whether memes count as modern examples. Plus, some additional chat about the ghostly spirits of unbaptised children. It is Halloween, after all.
This interview has been edited for length.
VICE: What first got each of you interested in folklore?
Willow Winsham: Fairytales being read to me is one of my earliest memories as a child, so you could say the interest in folklore stemmed from then. It also helped that I grew up pretty much in the middle of nowhere deep in the countryside – with thick woodland, rolling hills and a creepy mansions all on the doorstep; it was the perfect setting to bring a love of folk and fairy tales to life. I developed a fascination for the spookier side of folklore very early on – our nearest library had a wonderful selection of books on vampires, ghosts and other assorted shiver-inducing topics, and I spent many a night reading with a torch under my covers and then being too scared to come out.
Dee Dee Chainey: I'll also have to blame childhood fairytales – specifically the Ladybird Classics. I think for me, though, fairytales and folklore were a form of escapism when I was very young. I grew up in Toxteth in Liverpool, born soon after the infamous race riots. It was a turbulent place, and the community faced a lot of poverty and hardship throughout the 1980s; yet, when you looked over the River Mersey you could always see the green hills of Wales just in the distance, a sort of symbol that there was a different world out there, just out of reach. I suppose fairytales, in their own way, acted as a way of negotiating complex topics and feelings through their symbolism; they do teach inherent social lessons – how to navigate challenging situations and have faith in yourself – plus, I think it gave an added layer of magic to a grey, difficult world for a child.
Do you find yourselves learning a lot through the hashtag?
Dee Dee Chainey: Oh yes, for sure! There's so much folklore globally that it's impossible to know everything – no matter hard we try. One thing we love about the hashtag is how much random stuff is shared, and so much little known lore. In many places, there isn’t a long history of writing down folklore and traditions – much of it is passed on orally – and even when it is written down, much of this material isn’t translated into English, so it can be really difficult to find out about. #FolkloreThursday now has participants from all over the world – Southeast Asia, South America, the Middle East, as well as a lot of Scandinavian countries – and many people are bringing the lore they’ve learned from their parents and grandparents, and sharing this with us. Often, these traditions and tales aren't actually written down in books, so it’s a fascinating way to find out about them, especially when they’re contemporary beliefs and customs.
What are some of your favourite Halloween-related myths and traditions?
Dee Dee Chainey: I love carving a pumpkin lantern each year to "scare away the evil spirits" that lurk on Halloween, although in the UK this would have traditionally been a turnip, mangelwurzel or swede. There’s actually a whole evening – usually the last Thursday in October – dedicated to them in the West Country, called "Punkie Night", as "punkie" was a traditional name for a Jack o’lantern. An old tale tells that the wives of Hinton St George [in Somerset] went looking for their lost husbands, with punkies to light their way, when the men were late returning from the Chiselborough Fair nearby. The husbands – more than a little drunk – saw the glowing candles and thought they were the ghostly spirits of unbaptised children, and ran away in terror. It’s said that the punkies have been carried round the village by children on this night each year to remember the event ever since.
Willow Winsham: I have a fascination with the history of divination games and rituals, and Halloween is one of those times of year that attract a lot of those, perhaps due to the belief that the veil between the worlds is particularly thin at this time. The practice of peeling an apple and seeing what initial the peel forms when you drop it on the floor in order to learn the name of your future spouse was something I always wanted to try when younger, but was foiled by my substandard peeling skills. There are so many fascinating variations, ranging from watching how seeds fall to setting a snail in the ashes of a dying fire, and divination rhymes and rituals are said to foretell everything from the name of a future lover to the weather for the year to come. Looking at what form such rituals take and what people use them for is a great way of catching a glimpse of what concerns played on people's minds over time – examining them can tell us a lot, albeit not necessarily what was intended.
Are there any you've learned about this year that you weren't aware of before?
Willow Winsham: This year I’ve learned several new pieces of Halloween-related folklore surrounding something that terrifies me more than any ghosts or ghouls – spiders! Apparently, catching sight of a spider on Halloween itself means that the spirit of a loved one that has passed is nearby and watching over you; I'll try to remember that next time I see one. Another piece of spider-lore I’ve discovered, thanks to the hashtag, is the belief that if a spider falls into a candle flame on Halloween, then witches are close by.
Halloween represents different things in different cultures. Could you talk a bit about some of those differences?
Dee Dee Chainey: This time of year is celebrated as significant in many places around the world. In Mexico, it is Dia de los Muertos [Day of the Dead], which falls on November 1st and 2nd, a time to remember deceased family members. In Britain, we traditionally celebrated Allhallowtide, lasting from the 31st of October to the 2nd of November, and actually includes three different festivals: Halloween – or All Saints' Eve – All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day. It's thought that the origins of these Christian festivals lie in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, marking the end of summer in Scotland, the Isle of Man and Ireland, and welcoming the dark half of the year. Nos Calan Gaeaf is the Welsh Halloween, when the ghost hounds of the underworld ride through the sky on a wild hunt, led by the king of the underworld, Arawn. It's said that anyone who catches sight of these will soon die. Today, many Neo-Pagans celebrate Samhain – the Feast of the Dead, when the veil between this and the otherworld is thinnest, and the ancestors are remembered. To many, it represents the beginning of the new year. Divination is a traditional activity on this night, and many will do a tarot reading, to see what the year to come holds in store.
And what does Halloween represent to you personally?
Dee Dee Chainey: It’s such an old festival, and such an integral part of British culture. It's a nostalgic time for me, and I can't help but think of the traditional 1980s Halloween, when I’d dress up to go trick-or-treating with my family and friends, and play "duck apple". Trick-or-treat actually has a much older history than the Americanised version would have us believe: it used to be called "guising", where people would disguise themselves and go round knocking at neighbours' doors. In some areas, like Cheshire and Lancashire, people would go "soul caking" – singing door-to-door, asking for small cakes in return for their prayers for the household's dead.
There seems to be an association between folklore and nature, too, with a lot of tales involving mysterious creatures, mountains, lakes, etc. Perhaps that’s also why it piques interest during autumn, when we’re made more aware of nature through its physical changes around us?
Dee Dee Chainey: I’d say there’s a definite link between folklore and nature. In the earliest times, tales and myths were used to explain natural phenomena like the rising of the sun – e.g. the solar barge of the Egyptian Sun god Ra is said to carry the sun across the sky each day. Since the beginning of human history we have been tied to the land that we live in, and looked to it for sustenance: food and shelter. So it's only natural that we imbue the world around us with myths. In prehistoric times, it’s thought that people had animistic beliefs, meaning they believed things like rocks and trees had spirits or souls. Many of the earliest gods were personifications of natural forces – like the primordial gods of Greek mythology: Gaia was the earth itself, while Uranus was the sky. Later, the gods began to have dominion over nature: in Norse myth, Thor is the god of thunder, and Njord is associated with the sea.
Now that we have a better understanding of it, nature has lost some of its mystery, I guess. Folklore makes it more compelling again, in a way.
Dee Dee Chainey: It’s easy for us to forget that nature was once something to fear – it’s not surprising people filled it with monsters and demons. We just need to think of the dark forests of the Brothers Grimm, and tales like Red Riding Hood, to see why a parent might tell a small child a terrifying tale of what lurks in the woods to keep them safe. Even here in Britain, we have tales like Peg Powler and Jinny Greenteeth – long-armed hags draped in weeds that lurk in stagnant pools, just waiting for children to teeter on the edge so that they can drag them to their deaths. In Scotland, water-horses like the kelpie are the culprits: they wait for someone – often a child – to mount them, becoming so sticky the rider can't get down, and then charge into the water. One tale from Thurso tells a child even cut off his finger to escape, while the entrails of his comrades were found scattered at the lakeside the next day... But nature also provides food and shelter, so there are an array of more positive legendary creatures to counter the bad: fairies, hobs who help around the house or farm, benevolent tree and forest spirits. Folklore really shows what a complex relationship we have with the natural world around us from the role it plays in our tales and traditions.
Why do you feel it’s important to preserve folklore?
Dee Dee Chainey: Often, people think folklore is just about old customs, but it’s actually about all traditions: things that we pass on from one person to another, even today. Urban legends are folklore: like the story that there’s an alligator that lives in the New York sewers after being flushed down the toilet, or the story of the young couple sitting in their car, who get scared by a strange scraping noise, only to later find a hook in the side of door after reports of a serial killer on the loose who has a hook for a hand... or even UFO sightings. I’m sure we all remember the ghost stories we used to tell our friends as children to scare the pants off each other. These are the folktales of the modern day.
Does that mean you could consider memes a form of folklore?
Dee Dee Chainey: Even memes are folklore, yes! Folklore is about shared culture. While we might not think we have all of these traditions today that people in the past had, we very much do – we just don’t notice that they’re folklore, as we’re too busy doing them. Some more traditional customs that many people still do today are having "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" for a wedding, even if we don’t remember the significance: the old and new connect the bride to the past and future, while the borrowed item represents the present, and blue symbolises purity. Many know to always put a coin in a purse if giving it as a gift, as to give an empty one is bad luck. And we never open an umbrella indoors, or walk under a ladder, and we all know a black cat crossing your path is unlucky. Even in the modern world our lives are steeped in folklore, whether they're age-old traditions like observing Halloween, or more modern ones like "wetting the baby’s head" after a birth – or playing a trick on someone for April Fool’s Day, or eating pancakes on Pancake Day. We're all doing them... we just don’t always realise its folklore.
What do you think folklore represents beyond a social level?
Dee Dee Chainey: People often say that fairy tales are filled with archetypes and symbolism, as they were used to pass on traditional wisdom in a memorable and fun way: "Jack and the Beanstalk" has a great message about what we can achieve if we try, while "Rumpelstiltskin" is a dire warning about being careful what you agree to, and about keeping your word. Yet, we believe it goes much deeper than this. By comparing folktales and legends from all over the world, we can really see the similarities between us – irrespective of where we come from, our religion, our race. It becomes clear that each one of us shares the same hopes and dreams, and we all often fear the same thing. Folklore is a fantastically unifying thing. When we look at our calendar customs and traditions across the world, we see that the same things are often celebrated, just in different ways: a good harvest, a joining of two people in love, the birth of a child, mourning at the death of a loved one. We see from folklore that we all want to be surrounded by those we love, and often want to be the hero in our own story, believing that even the smallest of us has something to give.