Halloween: Customs, Myths and Messiness
“Customs vary wi’ the times, At Hallowe’en” wrote John Mayne in his 1780 poem simply entitled Hallowe’en. This work was a major influence on Robert Burns’ more famous poem of the same name which appeared in 1785. Mayne’s wise observation that Halloween customs vary (like all cultures and languages) with the times, has not been widely accepted. Instead Halloween has become a sort of battleground over identity, politics and nationality, with dubious claims thrown into the mix that its origin harks back to the pre-Christian age.
It is perhaps not a surprise that the nation which dominates the present Halloween narrative is Ireland, it being the only one of the four nations to have a massive, influential cultural revolution in the shape of the Gaelic Revival, which merged nationalism, mythology and eventually (after much bloodshed) polity. But Halloween customs can not be so easily traced. They date back many centuries, span Britain and Ireland and transcend the homogeneous “nation”. They pre-date standardised education systems and thus buckle the now coalesced narrative. When they become political, history tends to be the first victim. All of this means that our understanding of Halloween is blurred. It’s time to focus the lens.
But as there are so many unsubstantiated claims and assumptions relating to this festival, it’s difficult to know where to begin. My main research focus has been on the Jack O’Lantern so let’s start with that.
I presume you have heard the oft-repeated “origin” story? It goes something like this; “During Halloween Irish peasants used to hollow out turnips, carve faces into them, and place candles within, and when they emigrated to the U.S. they couldn’t find any turnips so they had to carve pumpkins. The Jack O’Lantern name for this turnip lantern is of Irish origin, and the folk tale of Stingy Jack is its inspiration. Oh, and while it’s now called Halloween, its real name is Samhain.”
While this is a nice, tidy narrative its history is far more complicated and interesting than that simplistic script.
1. There were turnips in the United States
Turnips were available in North America from at least the 16th century onwards. Food historians tell us that Jacques Cartier planted turnips in Canada in 1541 and that colonists planted them in Virginia in 1609 and Massachusetts in the 1620s. Hannah Glasse included many recipes involving turnips in her famous American cookbook first published in 1748. I’ve also found a reference to a turnip lantern being carried by a boy in Pennsylvania in 1778. Is it really a surprise that those who carved turnip lanterns in the U.S. changed their medium once they began to cultivate the more manageable pumpkin?
2. The name Jack O’Lantern (for a turnip lantern) is of English origin
First let’s discuss the Irish origin story. The Dublin Penny Journal carried an account of the legend (now referred to as “Stingy Jack”) in 1836. The author prefaced this “legend” by saying that the Jack O’Lantern referred to the Ignis fatuus phenomenon, but his uncle disagreed and claimed that it actually referred to Cursed Jack, stuck between heaven and hell, wandering the earth for eternity with nothing but a lantern for company. This legend appears to have its roots in Christian mythology (an adaptation of the Wandering Jew), nor is it original in the derivative sense, as there are an infinite number of folktales about the ignis fatuus recorded across Britain and Ireland. These stories invariably involve the devil, such as this Welsh tale starring Sion Dafydd. In the mid-19th century the Irish version was adapted by Hercules Ellis in his poem the Romance of Jack O’Lantern. Hercules’ poem was republished in the pro-“Irish Ireland“ Anglo-Celt newspaper on the 2nd July 1904. Yet, there is no suggestion in any of these sources that the “Stingy Jack” story is connected in any specific way to Halloween customs or to turnip lanterns. For that we have to head to Scotland and England.
William Holloway published A General Dictionary of Provincialisms in Lewes, England in 1838. The subtitle stated that the dictionary was “written with a view to rescue from oblivion the fast fading relics of by-gone days.” It includes two entries for the Jack-in-the-Lanthorn. The first as another name for the Will-o’-the-wisp that was common in Somerset. The second, is our carved turnip, with the candle inside, used to scare unsuspecting folk at night. This is the earliest source I could find that links the name Jack O’Lantern with turnip lanterns, and according to Holloway it was common in Hampshire, England. Of course there are many names for turnip lanterns in the British Isles, such as Hoberdy’s Lantern which the English antiquarian Jabez Allies remembers seeing carved by peasants boys in late 18th century Worcestershire.
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.
On Twitter Seán Mac an tSithigh reminded us of the carving of turnips to represent St. Brigid on the Iveragh Peninsula in Co. Kerry, which is recounted in the Leabhar Sheáin Í Chonaill.
So let’s take stock. That’s evidence of many different customs of carving lanterns, all with different names, found across Britain and Ireland at various times of the year.
3. The earliest specific reference to turnip lanterns and Halloween occurs in Scotland
While it’s now clear that turnips were being carved into lanterns across Britain and Ireland for the past few centuries, is there any specific account of it being done to mark Halloween night? The earliest source for this (that I could unearth) is from Scotland. The Scottish antiquarian and lexicographer, John Jamieson, published his Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language in Edinburgh in 1808. In this pioneering work he chronicles how during Halloween night, boys would carve turnips lanterns and place them in church yards (among other places I’m sure!) with the intent to scare passers-by. It was called a Candle and Castock. This confused me initially as Castock is the Scottish word for a cabbage stalk. After delving a little deeper, I discovered that the humble turnip shares the same genus as a cabbage, but perhaps a Scottish reader can clarify this in the comments section? It’s interesting to note that blacking was used to draw the face.
4. Only an Irish tradition?
We can’t move on without addressing the remarkable similarities in how Halloween was celebrated in Scotland, Ireland and Wales in the late 18th and early 19th century. I want to highlight this as the foremost authority on the subject, Ronald Hutton, has recently stated, rather baldly, that “massive Irish emigration to America in the 19th century took [Halloween] over there.” But compare Graham’s ‘British Georgies’ (first published in Edinburgh, 1809) or Burns’ Halloween with the account of a Halloween night in a peasants cabin in Ireland that featured in the Dublin Penny Journal (1834)? These customs all have a common thread. Harvest fare, games, ghost stories, fortune seeking (or telling). What’s more I found this lively report of a boisterous Halloween night in Pennsylvania as early as 1801 which is long before the “massive Irish emigration to America.” The reporter goes on to state that the 31st of October is “commonly” called Hallow-Eve suggests that this was not a niche event in the U.S. This account from Pennsylvania is strikingly similar to Halloween night in the town of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales in 1871.
In England in the 17th century the association between Halloween and the supernatural was clearly strong as we find a direct reference in a ballad first published there in 1681. It was entitled “Mans Amazement: it being a true Relation of one Thomas Cox, a Hackney-Coach-man, to whom the Devil appeared on friday night, it being the 31st. of October, first in the likeness of a Gentleman, seeming to have a role of Paper or Parchment in his hand, afterwards in the likeness of a great Bear with glaring eyes, which so affrighted him, that it deprived him of all his Sences.”
Therefore is it credible to argue that while Halloween was celebrated in many pockets of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland in the 18th and 19th century, it was only the Irish that brought it to the U.S.? Peoples from all four nations have a stake in the cultural soup that is today’s Halloween and this was reflected in the diaspora.
In 1848 the Baltimore Sun looked forward to “the good old English, or rather Welsh festival of All Hallow’s Eve.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle observed in 1859 that it is the Scottish that will be celebrating their festival, Halloween. There are many many more examples which I’ve excluded for the sake of brevity (and I know your Lambs Wool is going cold!)
5. Samhain Reborn: Gaelic Revivalists wish for Halloween to exit stage left?
The promotion of Irish, nay Celtic, mythology by the Gaelic League (from the 1890s) had a significant impact on the cultural consciousness in Ireland. Samhain was invoked liberally. It was used to mark territory on the Calendar, as if the owners of this ancient celebration had suddenly reawakened. W.B. Yeats named the new magazine of the Irish National Theatre Society, “Samhain” as it was
The old name for the beginning of winter [and] because our plays this year are in October, and because our Theatre is coming to an end in its present shape.
Next Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) held their inaugural Samhain festival in 1903. As you can see by the festival report, naming it Samhain, referred to the time of year rather than anything to do with a commemoration of the dead or the supernatural. Six years later the radical nationalist women’s group, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), hosted a Samhain Night in the Concert Hall at the Rotunda Buildings, Dublin. There is no account of snap-apple or Jack O’Lanterns at this celebration. Instead it featured an anti-enlistment tableaux, with the British Empire represented as “a decadent beer loving nation” and Ireland depicted as “poor and homeless.” By 1910 Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Fein newspaper followed Lady Wilde and Frazer’s lead by purposefully conflating Samhain and Halloween.
Twelve months later there was a Samhain celebration at 6 Harcourt Street, Dublin (“the Sinn Fein House”) which revived the old “games and customs.” This of course refers to Halloween, for no one knows what games and customs were actually associated with Samhain. In 1912, at St. Enda’s School, the headmaster Padraig Pearse marked Samhain by delivering a speech in tribute to one of his pupils, Frank Burke, who was later a participant in the 1916 Rising. Thus the conflation has become a sort of cultural nationalist policy and the labelling of Halloween as Samhain was now a measure or marker of “Irishness” and patriotism.
6. Jack O’Lantern in U.S. Political Rhetoric
Something which took me by surprise during my research was how the term “Jack O’Lantern” was used in everyday political parlance in the U.S. in the mid-19th century. To describe a policy as a ‘Jack O’Lantern’ was to say that it was a deception, a folly, that has (or will) lead to misery and ruin. This was famously evoked by Amos Tuck in 1845 when he lambasted the “Jack O’Lantern fantasies of little dictators” in the Democratic Party. Amos Tuck had resigned from the Democratic Party the previous year over their pro-slavery stance and is credited with starting the Republican Party.
7. Conclusion: It’s messy and I like it
I lied about focussing the lens. Halloween is a mess. A magnificent amalgam of British, Irish and American cultures, with a Germanic spinal cord, that transcends religion, nationalism and politics. So, that’s it from me, but please, before you get into a brawl over turnips and pumpkins, about American imports and commercialisation, just remember that “customs vary wi’ the times, at Hallowe’en.”