October falls between two high points of the festival year: the great feast of Michaelmas at the end of September and the solemn season of Hallowtide, which begins on October’s last night.
Many of the customs associated with Michaelmas, such as fairs and eating goose, once lasted well into October, and after the calendar change of 1752 were often kept on “Old Michaelmas Day”, October 10. According to English folklore, this is the last day it’s safe to gather blackberries: on Old Michaelmas Day, the Devil spits on them (or worse) and makes them unfit to eat.
In the British climate, October may feel like it belongs to either summer or winter. The Anglo-Saxons called the month “Winterfylleth”, because in their calendar winter began on the first full moon of October. But October can also see balmy spells of warm weather, and when such a spell occurs around the feast of St Luke (October 18), it’s known as “St Luke’s little summer”.
The last day of October is All Hallows Eve, the vigil of All Saints Day, the beginning of an ancient season for remembering the dead. The customs now associated with Halloween have disparate origins, resulting from a fusion of folklore, Catholic tradition and modern popular culture. Trick-or-treating is a survival of the once-widespread practice of “begging customs”, when children would go door-to-door asking for small gifts of food or money.
At Halloween they would beg for “soul cakes”, in memory of the souls in Purgatory, but such begging customs could also take place on other days, including the November feasts of St Clement and St Catherine. Other traditional Halloween customs were lingering relics of All Souls Day prayers for the dead, devotions still common in many Catholic countries, but suppressed in Britain at the Reformation.
Driven underground, these customs survived in some parts of England as late as the 19th century: there were local traditions of going out to fields or hilltops at midnight on Halloween and lighting fires to pray for the souls of departed family and friends.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.