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Remembering our ancestors during Hallowe'en

When I was sixteen, only one family in my neighbourhood conspicuously celebrated Hallowe'en. This was an American family who, it seemed to me, were having more fun at this time of year than everyone else. Every day in the week leading up to the 31st October I noticed new ghoulish decorations attached to the front of their house and increasingly excited children returning home. Today, I see carved pumpkins in almost every other window. Trick-or-treating is more popular in Britain than ever, and more of us are adopting US-style costumes and make-up for the night.

But beyond the orange decorations and spooky costumes lies a serious tradition. Hallowe'en - or All Hallows' Even(ing) - held great meaning for many of our ancestors. Different regions had unique ways of counting the hours until the Christian feast of All Saints' Day (All Hallows or Hallowmas) on the 1st November.

The origins of the festival appear to be non-Christian, coming from the ancient Celtic night of Samhain. In common with other autumn festivals, Samhain celebrated the harvest and marked the beginning of the dark half of the year by lighting fires. The Celts believed that during this event the spirits of the dead were able to pass from their world back into that of the living. The Samhuinn Fire Festival which began in the middle ages continues to be celebrated annually in central Edinburgh.

The 'Scottish Bard' Robert Burns (1759-1796)
Hallowe'en traditions developed over the centuries, with the festival becoming particularly popular in Celtic Ireland and Scotland where locals carved ghoulish faces on turnips to scare away mischievous spirits. These turnip lanterns were a common occurrence on the night of the 31st October in 18th and 19th century Scotland and are believed to be the origin of today's pumpkin version. Neighbours spooked each other with terrifying tales of witches and ghosts. In 1785, Robert Burns wrote a poem, 'Hallowe'en', giving an insight into how the festival was celebrated by country folk in his native Ayshire:

The lads sae trig, wi' wooer-babs
Weel-knotted on their garten;
Some unco blate, an' some wi' gabs
Gar lasses' hearts gang startin'
Whiles fast at night.

Not all Scots were keen, however. 'An Old Farmer' of Selkirkshire, writing in the Edinbuirgh Magazine (reproduced in the Caledonian Mercury of 10 August 1818), told of his staunchly Presbyterian father who forbade Hallowe'en from being held in their house. 

While Hallowe'en was traditionally the night for wildness and evil spirits, All Saints' Day is a significant holy day in the Christian year when Anglican and Roman Catholic churches remember saints and martyrs. The following day, 2nd November, is All Souls' Day when Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics commemorate the faithful departed. In some Catholic countries, such as Mexico, Brazil and Spain, the period is a national holiday known as the Day of Dead. During this time, families gather to remember their loved ones who have died and practise traditions such as visiting graves and leaving gifts of their ancestors' favourite foods.

In Britain, participating churches typically read out the names of those whose families ask for them to be remembered. For some it is a time to pray for souls in purgatory for whom, as Pope John Paul II said on All Saints Day 2000. "there is certitude that once the time of purification is over, the souls will go to meet the One it desires."

Therefore, although for much of the UK population the All Hallows period is no longer a time to remember departed family and friends, for some the tradition holds strong.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Wiltshire County Council Cemetery Records
As I have West Country ancestors I was pleased to discover Wiltshire Council's data is back on the website after a few amendments.
This collection includes nearly 50,000 records for 7 cemeteries:
Bradford-on-Avon Cemetery, Holt Road, Bradford-Upon-Avon
1856-1915 computerised index data only
1915-2010 burial register scans in various formats

Hilperton Cemetery, The Knap, Hilperton
1907-2010 burial register scans

Holt Cemetery, Gaston, Holt
1894-2010 burial register scans

Melksham Cemetery, Western Way, Melksham

1945-2010 burial register scans

Trowbridge Cemetery, The Down, Trowbridge
1856-2010 burial register scans

Warminster Cemetery (also known as Pine Lawns Cemetery), Folly Lane, Warminster
1970-2009 burial register scans

Westbury Cemetery, Bratton Road, Westbury
1857-1931 index data only
1931-2010 burial register scans 

Do you have records of how your ancestors marked Hallowe'en? Are you found any relatives in our Wiltshire collection? Do let us know in the Comments Box below or on our Facebook and Twitter pages. 

The Collected Poems of Robert Burns (Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994)


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