Halloween is a very awkward holiday in modern times because it’s been saddled with all generic harvest festival responsibilities (including those that might better belong to Lammas or Michaelmas) on top of its own significance.
Samhain celebrates the end of the harvest season, but also has a lot to do with the dead. Pre-Christian practices fused with November’s Christian remembrance of the dead to give us what we’d recognize as Halloween today1.
A more light-hearted and secular Halloween season feels appropriate from Michaelmas to Halloween itself – horror movies, the last of the harvest joys – and a more somber and observant Halloween season may be considered appropriate to November. November is the month to remember the dead and your ancestors, whether praying for them in Purgatory or celebrating the dead among us.
A soul cake, also known as a soulmass-cake, is a small round cake (though they more resemble in appearance and texture a shortbread biscuit, with sweet spices) which is traditionally made for Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to commemorate the dead in the Christian tradition. The cakes, often simply referred to as souls, are given out to soulers (mainly consisting of children and the poor) who go from door to door during the days of Allhallowtide singing and saying prayers “for the souls of the givers and their friends”.
The cakes are usually filled with allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger or other sweet spices, raisins or currants, and before baking are topped with the mark of a cross to signify that these were alms. They were traditionally set out with glasses of wine[..]
In the county of Cheshire, Souling plays were traditionally performed. This involved groups of soulers visiting farmhouses performing a death and resurrection play. One of the members would wear a horse-skull without which the play could not be performed.
Traditional food for Hop-tu-Naa includes mrastyr: potatoes, parsnips and fish mashed up with butter. Any leftovers from this evening meal would be left out with crocks of fresh water for the fairies. Toffee would also be made, with just sugar and water, as a communal activity on the evening of Hop-tu-Naa.
[..]some Neolithic passage tombs in Ireland are aligned with the sunrise at the time of Samhain. It is first mentioned in the earliest Irish literature, from the 9th century, and is associated with many important events in Irish mythology. The early literature says Samhain was marked by great gatherings and feasts, and was when the ancient burial mounds were open, which were seen as portals to the Otherworld. Some of the literature also associates Samhain with bonfires and sacrifices.
Sir James George Frazer wrote in his 1890 book, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, that 1 May and 1 November are of little importance to European crop-growers, but of great importance to herdsmen practising seasonal transhumance. It is at the beginning of summer that cattle are driven to the upland summer pastures and the beginning of winter that they are led back.
Sometimes, two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people—sometimes with their livestock—would walk between them as a cleansing ritual. The bones of slaughtered cattle were said to have been cast upon bonfires.
In parts of southern Ireland during the 19th century, the guisers included a hobby horse known as the Láir Bhán (white mare). A man covered in a white sheet and carrying a decorated horse skull (representing the Láir Bhán) would lead a group of youths, blowing on cow horns, from farm to farm. At each they recited verses, some of which “savoured strongly of paganism”, and the farmer was expected to donate food. If the farmer donated food he could expect good fortune from the ‘Muck Olla’; not doing so would bring misfortune.
burying apples in the hard-packed earth “feeds” the passed ones on their journey
I was curious, so I looked it up: depending on what you planted and when, it can also be a good time to turn a cover crop under. This is an appropriate counterpart to the energy of this rite, I feel.
There are people who argue back and forth about the exact origins of these different parts because they consider it Very Important to the modern celebrant to divide it all up like some awful squabble over an estate, but these people aren’t fun people. ↩