On “All Hallows E’en” – Part II

Snap-Apple Night, by Daniel Maclise (1832)



Since the last post was so obtuse, so full of esoteric information and/or so hard to digest  – that would be On Ecclesiasticus (NOT “Ecclesiastes”) – I thought I’d give the Faithful Reader a break with a short and sweet “Part II” to the first post on Halloween, On “All Hallows E’en” – Part I.

As noted earlier, back in the olden days each November 1st was celebrated as All Saints Day, and the Old English word for “saints” was halig, which eventually became “hallow.”  So the Old English “All Haligs’ Day” became “All Hallows,” and the evening before it became “All Hallows Evening,” which got shortened to “All Hallows E’en,” then just plain Halloween.

One thing to point out is that this particular Feast Day started many, many years ago.

A long, long time ago, our ancestors celebrated New Year’s Day on November 1.  That meant that New Year’s Eve came on October 31.  (Which was one excuse for the revelry).  Then about 835 AD, the Church made November 1 a feast day for “all saints,” to honor those practicing Christians (and it does take a lifetime of practice) who had died before them.

Back in those long-ago days, people thought evil spirits were most prevalent during long winter nights, and especially the long winter nights that started at the end of October.  They also believed the “barriers between our world and the spirit world” were weakest on All Hallows E’en, and therefore that it was then that the “spirits were most likely to be seen on earth.”  (This time of year was seen “as a liminal time, when the spirits or fairies (the Aos Sí) could more easily come into our world and were particularly active.”)

So our ancestors developed a custom designed to frighten away those spirits.  They built bonfires, then feasted and danced around them.  “The fires were thought to bring comfort to the souls in purgatory and people prayed for them as they held burning straw up high.”  (The idea came from pagan times, when evil spirits had to be driven away with noise and fire.)

In another old-time custom, travelers carried candles from 11:00 p.m. until midnight on All Hallows E’en.  The theory was that if the candles kept burning steadily that was a good omen,  and indicated the candle-holder would be safe during the upcoming “season of darkness.”  But if the candles went out – the thought was that they were blown out by witches – “the omen was bad indeed.”  (Which sounds a bit like the theory behind Groundhog Day…)

On another note, in England Halloween was also called “Snap Apple Night,” from a game with apples tied on a  string, somewhat related to Apple bobbing – Wikipedia:

Apple bobbing, also known as bobbing for apples, is a game often played on Halloween [by] filling a tub or a large basin with water and putting apples in the water.  Because apples are less dense than water, they will float at the surface.  Players … try to catch one with their teeth.  Use of arms is not allowed, and often are tied behind the back to prevent cheating… The current game dates back to when the Romans conquered Britain, bringing with them the apple tree, a representation of the goddess of fruit trees, Pomona.  The combination of Pomona, a fertility goddess, and the Celts‘ belief that the pentagram was a fertility symbol began the origins of bobbing for apples. 

The article indicated that the game developed out of a belief that the apple could be used to “determine marriages during this time of year.”  That is, young unmarried people would try to bite into an apple – floating in water or hanging from a string – and “the first person to bite into the apple would be the next one to be allowed to marry.”  Also, unmarried girls who placed “the apple they bobbed under their pillows are said to dream of their future lover.”

Another feature of All Hallow’s E’en was the Jack-o’-lantern.  Today they’re made from pumpkins, but they were originally carved from large turnips.  The term had a common ancestor with “Will-o’-the-wisp,” which used a generic name, Will[iam], and wisp, a bundle of sticks or paper, often used as a torch.  Another term developed, “Jack-o’-the-lantern,” and its application to carved pumpkins started in 19th century America.

Both terms are associated with a strange light that used to flicker over peat bogs, “back in the old country.”  This strange light was called ignis fatuus, Medieval Latin for “foolish fire.” Tradition had it that this ghostly light – seen by travelers at night and “especially over bogs, swamps or marshes” – resembled a flickering lamp.  The flickering lamp then receded if you approached it, and so it “drew travelers from their safe paths,” to their doom


The upper image is courtesy of Halloween – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, with the caption, “Snap-Apple Night, painted by Daniel Maclise in 1833, shows people feasting and playing divination games on Halloween in Ireland.”

The lower image is courtesy of Apple bobbing – Wikipedia, with the caption, “Halloween (Howard Chandler Christy), 1915.”  The article added:  Due to the nature of the game, whereupon a number of individuals each place their entire head into a bowl of water, it is thought to be a somewhat unsanitary game…  A potentially more sanitary variation of the game exists, with the apples hung on string on a line, rather than in a bowl of water,” like the Snap-Apple game above.   Finally, “Agatha Christie‘s mystery novel Hallowe’en Party, is about a girl who is drowned in an apple-bobbing tub.”

The text was gleaned from Allhallowtide – Wikipedia,  Halloween – Wikipedia (and articles therein), as well as History of Halloween – Halloween HistoryHalloween – Library of CongressHallow’s Eve – American Catholic, and/or BBC – Religions – Christianity: All Hallows‘ Eve


One final note:  I just edited On the readings for October 26, post publication, to clarify how Moses finally entered the Promised Land – by appearing to Jesus at the Transfiguration – albeit a Millennium after he expected.  In modern terms, Moses died some seven miles due east of the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, inside Jordan, while in the Transfiguration he “met up” with Jesus on Mount Tabor, inside Israel and 11 miles west of the Sea of Galilee.


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