Thursday, 27 October 2016

Halloween the British way

English Heritage carved turnips at Dover Castle last year
Pumpkin Day was trending on Twitter in the UK yesterday and ever more shops are selling them for carving. Indeed, on Broadway Market in Hackney – the epitome of trendy hipsterdom these days – an empty restaurant had been turned over to the sale of pumpkins and pumpkins alone last weekend.

People all over the world have long carved vegetables for all sorts of reasons, but there is evidence that the custom of carving jack-o’-lanterns at this time of year originated in Ireland and, by the 19th century, turnips and mangel wurzels were being used to create grotesque lanterns at Halloween in both Ireland and the Scottish Highlights, where Halloween was also the festival of Samhain.

Jack-o’-lanterns also cropped up in Somerset on Punkie Night, which is possibly linked to Halloween – ‘punkie’ is an old English name for a lantern.

In Cornwall, Allantide was celebrated on 31 October – although it has also been called Allan Day as part of attempts to claim it as being connected with a little-known Cornish saint, Allen or Arlan, rather than anything older and pre-Christian.

Allantide involves giving large, polished red apples as gifts – and sometimes, carving turnip head lanterns, plus the lighting of ‘Tindle Fires’ – the latter being in common with the traditions of other Celtic peoples.

Whatever the origins, there’s no history of carving pumpkins in the UK. It always comes back to turnips and swedes.

For instance, there’s evidence that turnips were used to carve a ‘Hoberdy’s Lantern’ in Worcestershire in the 18th century.

Jabez Allies – one of the earliest English writers on folklore – said that, “in my juvenile days I remember to have seen peasant boys make, what they called a ‘Hoberdy’s Lantern,’ by hollowing out a turnip, and cutting eyes, nose, and mouth therein, in the true moon-like style; and having lighted it up by inserting the stump of a candle, they used to place it upon a hedge to frighten unwary travellers in the night.”

In an article titled Halloween Sports and Customs, penned for the American magazine, Harper’s Young People, in 1885, Agnes Carr Sage clarified the trans-Atlantic differences: “It is an ancient British custom to light great bonfires (Bone-fire to clear before Winter froze the ground) on Hallowe’en, and carry blazing fagots about on long poles; but in place of this, American boys delight in the funny grinning jack-o’-lanterns made of huge yellow pumpkins with a candle inside.”

So, if you feel tempted to buy and carve a pumpkin – thing again and get yourself a turnip or a swede for the job.

And lest we forget, trick or treating is NOT a British tradition either: instead, we have Mischief Night, a pranking holiday that usually takes place the night before Halloween itself.

Like so many traditions, the exact roots of it are unclear, but it’s thought to date from the 18th century, when a custom of Lawless Hours or Days still existed.

It only appears on record as Mischief Night in the 1830s, when it took place on 30 April. Indeed, in Germany, Mischief Night is still celebrated on 1 May.

There seems no certainty about why it moved or how – or even when it takes place. Some say it’s on 4 November – some, the night before Halloween, although this confusion may be linked to the country’s shift from Julian to Gregorian calendar in 1752, meaning that 11 days were ‘lost’.

But while we have Halloween, Bonfire Night and Mischief Night at different times, but they all originate from the same festival.

“These were times when normal laws were suspended and tricks could be played ranging from throwing cabbage stalks at people, to the swapping of shopkeeper’s signs and gates, Simon Costin, the director of the Museum of British Folklore, told the BBC in 2009.

So if your gate is taken off its hinges on Sunday night – just remember: that’s a proper British tradition.

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