Category Archives: Irish

Ancient Halloween Traditions

The term “Hallowe’en” dates to 1745 & derives from the Scottish term for “All Hallow’s Eve” – the evening (‘een) before All Hallows or All Saints Day (a hallowed person being the same as a saint). This solemn religious festival became associated with bonfires, disguises, spirits, apple bobbing, & burning hazelnuts through a tradition of the early Christian Church to graft a religious festival upon each pagan one so as not to disturb the customs of the people; and just as they grafted Christmas, the feast of the Nativity, upon Yule, the winter solstice festival of the Nordic peoples, so they grafted Hallowe’en upon the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sah’-win), which marked the beginning of the Gaelic year.

Most European peoples bisected the year at the summer (June) & winter (December) solstices. The Celts bisected the year at spring (May 1 – Beltane – the entry to summer) and fall (November 1 – Samhain – the entry to winter). This division was natural to a pastoral people: at Beltane the flocks & herds went to their summer pastures and at Samhain they returned to the fold. At Beltane, a blessing was invoked on hunter, herdsman, cattle, & crops; while Samhain was a day of thanksgiving for the safe return of the wanderers and the renewal of the food supply.

November was also the season of earth’s decay, and the day that marked the end of summer was symbolic of death; thus Samhain also became a day of remembrance of the dead. All Saints’ Day was introduced in the year 609, but was originally celebrated on May 13th. In 835 A.D. Pope Gregory IV transferred this festival to November 1, the same day as Samhain. While the Feast of All Saints commemorated the “blessed dead,” the Feast of All Souls (November 2) was consecrated to the “faithful dead.” All over Europe the souls of the departed were believed (and the belief still lingers) to re-visit their old homes at this season. Some traditions place All Hallow’s Eve on the evening of October 31 (the day before All Hallow’s) while others place it on the evening of November 1 (between All Saints and All Souls days).

Not only were the ghosts of the departed wandering on this day – the whole Other world was temporarily upset, and its denizens were set free to pester anyone they encountered. At dusk the Sluath (sloo-ah), the Host of the Dead, drifts by on the wind. These spirits could stir trouble by stealing crops, creating panic, and tricking people out of goods and money. Offerings of food were left (or given to the Druid priests) to keep spirits from entering homes or creating chaos. People also carved faces into fruits & gourds (particularly turnips) and left them outside their homes to ward off evil spirits. This custom eventually transferred to pumpkins; hence the origins of the Jack O’ Lantern.

An artist's visualization of Samhain.

An artist’s visualization of Samhain.

During Samhain, sacred bonfires were lit to ward off the darkness, animals were sacrificed, & Druid priests dressed in costumes of animal skins and heads to represent the spirit world. However, by 1585, the object of a Hallowe’en guiser was not to imitate but to avoid being recognized by the spirits of the dead. Today, the masks and garments of the guisers again represents the creatures their forefathers believed to be at large on Hallowe’en night – ghoulies, ghosts, witches, fairies, etc. – and the practice has since passed particularly to children. Emboldened by disguise, they go from door to door with a “Please to help the guisers!” and are rewarded with apples, nuts, coins, and, much later, candy. Tricks were played to imitate the mischievous spirits that their forebears feared. The earliest known reference to “Trick or Treat” was not recorded until 04 Nov 1927, in the Blackie (Alberta, Canada) Herald. [Another theory traces this custom to the medieval practice of “mumming,” seasonal folk plays that happened on holidays.]

As a season of omens and auguries, Hallowe’en, as the beginning of a New Year, was also the best time to pry into the future. The veil between the natural and spirit world thinned to transparency and glimpses of things hidden in time could be obtained. The materials used – principally grain, vegetables, & fruit – mark the close association of Hallowe’en and Harvest. Thus, games with apples and hazelnuts were used as a means for seeing into the future. To the early Celts, the hazel – “the magic tree that wizards love” – was the source and symbol of wisdom, while the apple was the talisman that admitted a favored mortal to the Otherworld and gave the power to foretell the future. Hallowe’en parlor games were reminiscent of mythological ordeals by fire and water & the quest to obtain great treasure and knowledge. Dookin’ for Aipples (Dunking for Apples) symbolized the Druidic rite of passing through water to Avalon (or Apple-land), to then pluck an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, and obtain the gift of prophesy. [Another theory traces its origins to the Roman conquests & the festival to the goddess Pomona, whose sacred fruit was apples.]nut-burning2

The “Ordeal by Fire” is symbolized in The Aipple and the Can’le or the “Snap-Apple” – whereby a rod is set to spin with an apple on one end and a candle at the other. The guests must “snap” to bite the apple without burning themselves. Englishmen & Celts thus referred to Hallowe’en as “Snap Apple Night.” Burning two hazelnuts, with a lover’s name written on each, was a means to see which hazelnuts jumped and cracked & which burned peacefully together.

Some of the earliest literary works on the subject of Halloween can be traced to the 1780s, particularly Robert Burn’s 1785 poem “Halloween.” Burns himself drew images of the festivities, as did other artists, but arguably the best representation belongs to Daniel Maclise. In 1832 Daniel Maclise, who was originally from Cork, made an excursion through Oxford and the midland counties of England, before traveling to Ireland, via Holyhead. Accompanied by Thomas Crofton Croker, he arrived in Cork, where they were guests of honor at the All Hallow’s Eve party, held annually in a large barn by the Rev. Fr. Mathew Horgan, parish priest at Blarney, only a few miles from Cork.

Justin O’Driscoll, Maclise’s biographer, writes:

It was the invariable custom of the good priest to invite a large party on All Hallows Eve; it was a social gathering where persons of superior position in society were to be found unaffectedly mingling with the poorest peasantry of the parish. Crofton Croker and Maclise were invited to this entertainment, and whilst the young artist, charmed with the novelty of the scene, surrendered himself heart and soul to the enjoyment of the night and joined with the harmless hilarity that prevailed, he contrived to sketch every group in the barn.

Daniel Maclise

Daniel Maclise

His first major genre painting in oils, “Snap-Apple Night or All-Hallow’s Eve, in Ireland” was shown at the 1833 Royal Academy Exhibition. The critics gave mixed reviews to the painting, but the public loved it and it was considered the most popular at the exhibition. This led to an engraving by James Scott, first published in 1837, which only enhanced “Snap Apple Nights” popularity. Maclise crowded his painting with a large group of people, dancing, playing games, and participating in practically every Halloween custom outlined by Robert Burns. He also included in his painting images of close friends and family, including Fr. Horgan, Thomas Crofton Croker, Sir Walter Scott, Maclise’s sisters and brother-in-law, Dr. McEvers (a local physician), and possibly even Maclise himself, standing by the fire with a young woman on his arm. There was no denying that Maclise had captured the festivities and enjoyment associated with the ancient holiday.

All Hallow Eve—or snap-apple night, as it has been popularly termed—will be celebrated this evening, with all the festive éclat of its predecessors. Says the New York World, this great feast has long been appropriated to the purpose of making the single married and the married happy… The sportive exercises which also mark the occasion – which include diving for apples, burning nuts, melting lead and casting it in water in order to have it assume shapes which betoken future incidents, and other curious exercises – will make Hallow-E’en, as in times past, sustain its old reputation for pleasing incidents and household joy. ["New Haven Daily Palladium", 31 Oct 1865, pg 2]

All Hallow Eve—or snap-apple night, as it has been popularly termed—will be celebrated this evening, with all the festive éclat of its predecessors. Says the New York World, this great feast has long been appropriated to the purpose of making the single married and the married happy… The sportive exercises which also mark the occasion – which include diving for apples, burning nuts, melting lead and casting it in water in order to have it assume shapes which betoken future incidents, and other curious exercises – will make Hallow-E’en, as in times past, sustain its old reputation for pleasing incidents and household joy. [“New Haven Daily Palladium”, 31 Oct 1865, pg 2]

As the Europeans immigrated to North America, autumn festivals, accompanied by bonfires and social games, were common throughout Colonial times & the early 1800s; but the Puritans of New England were opposed to Hallowe’en and anything associated with spirits and ghosts. It wasn’t until the Irish and Scottish immigration during the mid-19th century (and their accompanying Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran denominations) when Hallowe’en traditions began appearing regularly in the New World.

In St. Louis, Robert Campbell was probably aware of Halloween due to his Scots-Irish heritage, though it is doubtful his Presbyterian upbringing promoted the festivities. What is more likely is that Robert’s sister-in-law, Mary Kyle Campbell, the wife of his brother Hugh and beloved aunt to the Campbell children, who lived just a block away at 1532 Washington Ave and who had been raised in the Anglican church, would have been more familiar (and arguably more supportive) of Hallowe’en traditions. It is curious to note that today the Derry & Strabane District Council in Northern Ireland sponsors a Halloween festival that is billed as one of the world’s largest. Strabane, the second largest city in County Tyrone, is only 10 miles from Robert’s home in Plumbridge and the city of Derry is only 14 miles further north, the port from which both Hugh and Robert Campbell would have started their immigration journey to America.

Following the Civil War, Halloween was becoming a more widely known and accepted social custom. St. Louis newspapers in November 1870 even encouraged it:

The quaint old festival of Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve should, according to the calendar have been celebrated yesterday the 31st October; but in St. Louis we fancy it had no general recognition. It is however one of those old anniversaries, the celebration of which is so invested with social pleasantness that it should be perpetuated. [Daily Missouri Republican, 01 Nov 1870, pg 3]

It may not be out of place to refer to All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, which is observed on the vigil of All Souls’ Day, namely yesterday [November 1]. In the old country it is observed as a day of rejoicing. The games, sports and pastimes remind a person much of those that take place on Christmas day. We have not space to describe those innocent recreations and diversions… [Missouri Democrat, 02 Nov 1870, pg 4]

St. Louis "Globe-Democrat", August 10, 1931

St. Louis “Globe-Democrat”, August 10, 1931

At this time, Robert’s sons Hazlett was age 12 & James age 10, but Hugh was age 23, in his prime for the society parties that were increasingly reported in subsequent years. Also note that several of the Campbell domestic servants were Irish immigrants and no doubt Catholic. Irish servants working for the Campbell household in 1880 included Hannah O’Rourke (washwoman; nursemaid; b.c1830; age 50); Ellen Maney (cook; b.c1850; age 30); and John O’Neill (coachman; b.c1840; age 40). St. John the Apostle & Evangelist Catholic Church (the “Irish church”) is 1½ blocks directly south of the Campbell House on Chestnut Street & there were many Irish families living in the immediate neighborhood. It is certainly possible that turnips or pumpkins were carved at the Campbell House, especially in later years when Hugh was the head of the household (c1880 through 1910s).

Initially limited to immigrant communities, the press promoted Halloween’s quaint customs and social activity, such that by the end of the 19th century, the festival had spread nationally. With that, an effort was made to make it more of a community & family holiday, without necessarily removing its religious significance. Many (unsuccessfully) pushed to take the “scary” and “fright” out of it completely. By the 1920’s and 1930’s, Halloween had become a national secular holiday. It’s possible that Gus Meyer, Hugh Campbell’s personal assistant, passed out apples, sweets, or “trick or treats” at 1508 Locust Street, although starting in 1926 the brothers were almost totally reclusive, and the house took on the aura of the “mystery house.” Though it is questionable whether anyone would dare knock on the door (or that anyone would answer it), the house itself must have stirred its share of Halloween stories.

Tom Gronski
Senior Researcher