Hallowe’en in the ‘pagan borderlands’

Hallowe’en is a subdued affair in 2020, due to Covid-19 and lockdowns. But then in the UK, it mostly always was. The short history is that it became a Big Thing in the US, due to Scottish and Irish imigrants. Was expanded there with the whole ‘trick or treat’ thing. And then exported back to the whole of the UK – I’d estimate in the early 1990s – thanks to US children’s TV programmes and canny British retailers keen to supply a new market with plastic skeletons and LOTS of sweets.

But Hallowe’en was very much on the British calendar before then – just totally overshadowed by Bonfire Night five days later when it came to parties and food.

Hallowe’en: ‘a forgotten festivity’

The first reference to Hallowe’en I could find in the Carlisle Patriot was in 1819 – but related to Scotland.

In 1859, it was suggested that but for a Robert Burns poem, the memory of local superstitions of Hallowe’en ‘might have been obliterated’.

The Carlisle Patriot, also in 1859, refers to Hallowe’en as ‘that now almost forgotten festivity’.

Carlisle Amateur Glee Union gave a concert at the county asylum (Garlands) in November 1863. The writer says ‘few people know how much real good such entertainments do to the inmates of asylums’. And puts the rest straight about the pleasure that dances, games and concerts bring to the residents. 

And if they* had seen the merriment caused by Mr McMillan, the ventriloquist, when he was lately at Garlands, or the celebration of Hallowe’en at the asylum, or best of all… the concert there they would require no argument to convince them of the benefit of such sources of innocent entertainment.

*the doubters

Pagan indifference

In 1867, Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological Society had as the topic for one meeting: State of Religion in the Border Country. An anonymous paper was read which stated that while poeple in ‘the south’ observed strictly Christian festivals, people in the borderlands peppered theirs with pagan touches.

In the matter of fairies and Brownies, the superstitions in the Border country were also more devloped and lasted longer than in the rest of England and belief in spells and enchantments was common…. in the Middle Ages, religion as it was then taught did not exercise a great influence in the Border.

The author contended:

The borderers… had many superstitious fears and observances and the penances they had to pay for their misdeeds were a heavy tax upon them. It was to get rid of this yoke that they embraced the Protestant religion.

However, having done so, those on the English side of the border:

…would not lead the life of purity and self-denial which Christianity required… and remained in a state of indifference until a comparatively recent period.

‘Less of the pagan, eh?’

The Rev James Simpson, vicar of Kirkby Stephen, begged to differ. He didn’t think Cumbrians were more heathenish than people in the south. He supposed the writer referred to Hallowe’en especially, but that was observed equally in the south and the north.

The chairman of the meeting, the honourable Percy Scawen Wyndham MP, also thought that as much faith existed in the old superstition of witchcraft in the south as in the north. He also thought that Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries had left a religious vacuum in Cumberland and Westmorland that remained until after the Union of England and Scotland. 

This may have been ‘hey, who are you calling heathens?’ But for sure, in the centuries when the borders were ‘the debatable lands’ – lawless and uncontrolled – there may have been less ‘purity and self-denial’ than churchmen would like.

Turnip lanterns and mashed potato

In 1870, the Patriot described Hallowe’en festivities – in Scotland. Boys and girls parading the streets with turnip lanterns. While families at home feasted on nuts, apples and mashed potatoes, and ‘the fates of lovers were prognosticated’. 

Queen Victoria may not have been amused by some things, but she enjoyed a good party, and Hallowe’en festivities were a regular on the calendar at Balmoral Castle. Recording the latest, in 1881, the Carlisle Express and Examiner referred to Hallowe’en as ‘the Scottish festival’. 

In 1886, the Anchor Lodge of Good Templars, Carlisle, were entertained with a Hallowe’en Splore. This included ‘vocal entertainment’, fruit cake, and sweets. But no alcohol, as this was a temperance association. A splore = a Scottish word for a revel, a carousal.

But what about Cumbria?

It’s not until 1892 that any Carlisle paper (in this case, the Carlisle Express and Examiner) refers to wider Hallowe’en celebrations in Cumberland/Westmorland. 

It mentions the:

games and pseudo-incantations indulged in by the lads and lasses of the scattered farmsteads and communities in the more thinly populated districts at Hallowe’en. Which, not so long ago, was almost as much observed in Nichol Forest and Bewcastle as on the Scottish side of the Esk.

A short word on Hallowe’en customs

It’s hardly surprising that Hallowe’en customs involve things like nuts and apples and other foodstuffs that were in season in October.

Burning nuts on Hallowe’en as a charm is one that has passed me by. But as child, I’d happily (and carefully, under supervision!) peel an apple and throw the peel over my shoulder, to see the initial of the man I would marry.

Of course, it always either fell as an S, or broke into C and some bits. Don’t try it should the person you secretly hope to marry have the initial K or H!