Halloween: Our Childhood Traditions

It’s the spookiest day of the year! We asked some students and staff to share their favourite Halloween traditions. But first, some Halloween history…

‘The name Halloween itself is simply a contraction of All Hallows Eve.  This derives from the fact that Halloween is the evening and night before the Christian festival of All Hallows, or All Saints.  That festival was placed on 1st November from the eighth century onwards and therefore Halloween fell on 31st October. 

From the early middle ages there were fears that ghosts and spirits were able to return to earth and do harm to people, animals and crops, at liminal times – and at Halloween in particular.  This made the lighting of fires and candles, and the protective ringing of church bells, important on this night.  Gifts of food were also offered, either directly to the souls of the dead or as alms in exchange for prayers.  By the sixteenth century an additional supernatural threat had been added to the perils of the night, as growing fears about witches led to beliefs that witches were especially powerful and likely to cause harm on that night. 

There are no records of lanterns made from turnips or pumpkins being used in medieval churches! Even so, special contacts with the dead, feasting, lighting-up of the night, and communal protection against supernatural dangers all remain important activities at this time. If you go out trick-or-treating tonight, spare a moment to think about the medieval origins of these ideas.’ – Professor Anne Lawrence

Childhood Halloween Traditions

‘The boys go about the village with turnip lanterns, which they make themselves, doing all kinds of mischief.’ (Anon 1897)

‘For someone brought up in the North West in the1970s, large, bright, orange pumpkins at Halloween were an exotic thing; something American and expensive, something we might expect to see being unloaded at Liverpool Docks. Pumpkins were not for us, nor many across the UK, our tradition was a turnip lantern. Turnips were small and cheap to buy but brutal to carve. While the image above shows some very professionally carved turnips, in reality a kitchen knife and a large spoon produced something more fundamental usually hanging on a grubby piece of string to be carried around!

However, the carving of turnips predates the mid C20th by some way. The Victorians carved not just turnips but other vegetables too. They were left of the doorstep (not to indicate that this was a ‘trick or treat’ stop) but to ward off evil spirits.  After All Hallows Eve, you would often find the turnip lanterns relocated around farmers’ fields protecting slumbering crops. The tradition originated in folklore, a tale of the unfortunate Jack, who roamed the neighbourhood with a only piece of burning coal inside a hollow turnip for light – the original ‘Jack-o’-lantern’.

For more on turnip lanterns, the legend of Jack or ‘Jack ‘o lanterns’ English Heritage have a wonderful blog here. If you want to try your hand at carving a turnip lantern, you can find a video guide from English Heritage here (wish I’d had this as a kid!)’ Dr Jacqui Turner

‘Each Halloween I wait until the final week of October and binge-watch my ‘Halloween Movie and Series Checklist’. It includes classics like ‘Hocus Pocus’, ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’, and ‘Nightmare before Christmas’. I also carve a small pumpkin and put a candle in it, hang up pumpkin fairy lights, and go for leafy walks with hot coffee! On the day I listen to my ‘Halloween’ playlist and usually have a party!’ – Layla, UG History Society

‘For me, I enjoy watching Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix, and switching on just about every form of fairy light I can find. I always find horror films can only be watched with other people, (I get scared so easily) so group watch parties are a fun way to spend a night in. The only way to live out my teenage Autumn Pinterest aesthetic is by purchasing a PSL from Starbucks – they’re absolutely the best!’ – Emilia, UG History Society

‘At Halloween I enjoy reading comforting books and watching traditional Halloween movies. I also love drinking hot chocolate in the evenings!’ – Kath, UG History Society

‘One of my favourite things to do on Halloween is to go through some scary fiction – whether it be films (eg: The Witch), horror YouTube channels or read scary stories such as on r/NoSleep. There’s some good stuff out there, such as Infected Town anthology on r/NoSleep and Nexpo on YouTube. It’s fun but beware, it can spook you!’ – Om, UG History Society

‘I loved listening to monster mash on repeat!’ – Oskar, UG History Society

Visit our Twitter @UniRdg_History to comment your own favourite Halloween Traditions!

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