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A Traditional English Halloween

Updated on October 31, 2015
Pollyanna Jones profile image

Pollyanna writes about folklore, magic, history and legends, focussing on British, Irish, Germanic, and Celtic cultures.

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Halloween when I was a child, wasn't so much about getting dressed up and traipsing from house-to-house begging for sweets. If you were lucky, the family threw a party for the children, and you all had a laugh at your nan for dropping her false teeth into the bowl of water during apple bobbing.

Trick-or-Treating has been a fairly recent phenomenon in Britain, which rose in popularity after being featured in several popular American films and television programmes. I remember never hearing of such a thing until I saw ET, and was delighted to see children my own age, in fancy dress being let out after dark to return home with baskets filled with treats.

It was not long after that, that we saw an increase in the number of shops selling spooky masks and costumes. From the humble beginnings of making yourself look like a witch by gluing crisped rice cereal to your face and pretending they were warts, to the slick outfits one can kit out ones child with today that would put a Hammer Horror costume designer to shame, Halloween has become an all-together different beast.

Now seen as a popular family festival, Halloween is still to be accepted as a day of fun by some of the more traditional British households, who wrongly see it as an "Americanisation" of our culture (these customs went back and forth over the Atlantic with European emigration). Others see it as distasteful or even blasphemous. Whilst England is very much a multi-cultural country now, there are still those that have no desire at all to risk inviting the Devil or wayward spirits into their homes!

In this article, I'll be looking at some of the activities that featured in a more traditional British Halloween party.

"When the night wind howls in the chimney cowls, and the bat in the moonlight flies..." ~ W. S. Gilbert
"When the night wind howls in the chimney cowls, and the bat in the moonlight flies..." ~ W. S. Gilbert | Source

Halloween Magic

As school children, we would chatter in secret about the magic of Halloween. This was the one night of the year where spells were bound to work! Or at least we thought that. In the evening, most of us would have a go of at least one of them, then giggle with each other about the results the next day.

The first of these was to peel an apple without the skin breaking. You would end up with a length of apple skin about a foot long. The next step was to close your eyes, ask for the initial of your true love, then throw the apple skin behind you over your shoulder. When it landed, the initial of the first name of your husband or wife to be would be revealed. Is it any surprise that most of us reported that our true love's name would begin with an "S"? My nan tells me how it worked for her. She married a man who's name began with a "C".

Another way to find your true love was to sit in front of a mirror in a dark room, lit only by the light of one candle. One would have to stare into the mirror for as long as possible, and slowly the face would be revealed. I can't say this ever worked, although it was interesting to watch your reflection disappear as your retinas adjusted to looking at the same image for anything in excess of 10 minutes at a time!

English Apples
English Apples | Source

Apples

September marks apple harvest across much of England, and as a result, we have them coming out of our ears come October. Some of them were put to good use at Halloween.

One activity involved typing string to an apple stalk, then hanging it from the door frame or if outdoors, a tree. Rows of apples were hung in this way, and party-goers would have to stand with their hands behind their backs, and try to take a bite out of the apple. The winner was the first person to bite a piece of the fruit. And guess what they won? Yes, an apple.

Apple bobbing is another traditional activity. In larger celebrations, a barrel was filled with water and apples were dropped into it. In the more humble abode, the barrel was replaced with a washing-up bowl. Again, the participants had to grab the apple using only their teeth. The variation of this to the previous game is that you would most likely get water up your nose and make a mess of your kitchen.

The Flour Cake, ready to be cut
The Flour Cake, ready to be cut | Source

The Flour Cake Game

This game was received by delight by the children, and with a sense of dread by the adults tasked with cleaning up the mess afterwards.

A pudding bowl was filled with flour which was patted firm and tipped upside-down, much like making a sand-castle. Placing a plate over the bowl to tip out the contents carefully, prevented the Flour Cake from collapsing before the game began.

The Flour Cake would be carried in to the room where the game was to be played, along with a tea tray and butter knife. A sheet was laid on the floor by the more sensible parents, and the plate with the Flour Cake placed upon it. The children would sit around the Cake and tea tray in a circle. A sweet from a Dolly Mixture would then be placed on the top of the Flour Cake, right in the centre.

The person that brought in the Flour Cake would place the butter knife on the tea tray and spin it, waiting for it to slow and stop. The blade end of the knife would point to the child that needed to cut a slice.

Carefully, this person would remove a slice of "Cake", and the child would then spin the knife again. This would in turn, select the next child whose task it was to cut the next slice. The game would continue until the sweet on the top of the Flour Cake fell from its position on the top into the floury mess on the plate.

This is where the fun really began.

Whoever had the turn to cut a slice when the sweet fell, would be responsible for retrieving the sweet. The catch? They had to do this with only their mouth.

You can imagine the aftermath; flour all over the place, and an instant ghostly make-over for the child that had to recover the fallen sweet.

The Flour Cake Game was a firm favourite, and even made appearances at birthday parties. Thankfully, vacuum cleaners had been invented at this point.

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A Little Mild Horror

Now ours was the generation that grew up with the greatest of British Institutions; Hammer Horror films. Our parents and grandparents loved to chill us with tales of terror, and to make the children squeal with fright on Halloween night was all part of the fun. We would be gathered around and told a ghost story, usually in the dim light of candles, or just the light from the open fire in the hearth and the soft glow of a couple of pumpkin lanterns, carved with spooky faces.

My favourite of these included an eyeball prop. This was either a peeled grape, or a peeled orange with a hole stabbed in it, depending on the story told.

We would all sit quietly, as an uncle or granny would tell us the tale about a terrible man who did dastardly deeds in life. In some versions this would be a pirate, in others, an ogre or troll. It all caught up with him eventually and he was done in by his wickedness and cast down to Hell. All that remained of him was his eyeball, and would we like to see it?

We would have to close our eyes, as the "eyeball" was placed in our hands. If the orange was used, we were encouraged to poke it.

There were squeals of fright, and plenty of laughter, and at the end of the game we are all shown the orange or grape, to make it clear that it was only pretend.

"Eyeball Jellies", made with tinned lychees stuffed with glacé cherries
"Eyeball Jellies", made with tinned lychees stuffed with glacé cherries | Source

Party Food

No party would be complete without some sort of buffet. Some dishes that made their way to our tables would be a spicy pumpkin soup with home made bread rolls, sandwiches of course, and the obligatory bowl of crisps. Monster Munch were bound to be chosen, a type of savoury maize puff shaped as monster claws.

Eggs were boiled and cut in half. The yolk was removed and mashed with salad cream before being placed back in to the dent in the egg half. Half a black olive was then place in this to make it look like an eye.

Green jelly was set in a mould with red liquorice shoelaces. When presented, it looked revolting; like a pile of green slime filled with worms. For the grown-ups, red jelly mixed with vodka was poured into a melon which was then carved to look like a skull or screaming monster's face.

Then we had foods where a little imagination was used. Carrot sticks would become monsters' fingers. Cheese curl snacks would become zombie toenails. Plenty of black, green, and red food colouring was added to home made biscuits and fairy cakes, which were then decorated with spiders, eyeballs, bats, or little chocolate skulls. If we were able to find one, a liquorice rat made for an excellent centrepiece alongside the cheese and pineapple chunks on cocktail sticks.

It really is easy to prepare a spooky looking and delicious buffet with the only limits being on one's imagination, and of course the desire not to send everyone home with food poisoning!

The Halloween of my childhood was one where the whole family would come together. It would be an event for the children to enjoy, and for the older family members to join in the fun and dress themselves up.

Costumes were not expensive; more often than not they were home made. Masks were made from papier mache that had been shaped on a balloon and allowed to harden, before decorating when dry. Face paints were also put to good use, and old clothes were cut up or torn to make spooky looking costumes. The preparation was as much a part of the fun as the party itself.

We would also be allowed to watch a Hammer Horror film. Although classified for older viewers these days, it was not uncommon for these classic British horrors to be screened in daytime, and we all enjoyed watching the monsters, witches, and vampires. If it got too scary, we could always hide behind the sofa!

Last but not least, a mute supper was prepared for the spirits of family members who had passed away and could not be with us in person. We would leave a portion of party food outside with a lantern nearby, so that the could find their way.

A belief around Halloween is that it is a day of the year when loved ones can come and visit, before returning to their rest on All Saints' Day, on 1st November. We always made sure to remember the folk that could not join us in person, and remember them fondly on this night.

Pumpkin Soup with Granary Bread
Pumpkin Soup with Granary Bread | Source

Spicy Pumpkin Soup

When carving your pumpkin, don't let any of the flesh go to waste. This delicious soup is a welcome warming dish on a cold Autumn day. Make extra, and store it in your freezer. The pumpkin seeds can also be toasted and served as a garnish with the soup.

5 stars from 1 rating of Spicy Pumpkin Soup

Cook Time

Prep time: 30 min
Cook time: 35 min
Ready in: 1 hour 5 min
Yields: Serves Four

Ingredients

  • 1 kilogramme pumpkin, chopped
  • 1 whole white onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 litre chicken stock (can replace with vegetable stock)
  • 1 tablespoon light olive oil
  • 90 millilitres thick cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon chilli powder (or chopped fresh chillis)
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • black pepper & salt to taste

Instructions

  1. In a frying pan, heat the chopped onion for about 4 minutes on a medium heat, until it starts to go clear. If it browns, it is over-done.
  2. Add all of the spices, apart from the black pepper, and stir for 1 minute.
  3. Pour your stock and pumpkin pieces into a large saucepan. Tip in the onion and spices, and bring to the boil.
  4. Simmer for about 20 minutes, then allow to cool. Once it is cool enough, use a blender or food processor to make the mixture smooth.
  5. Pour it into a clean pan, add the cream, and slowly bring to a simmer, stirring constantly. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Serve straight away, with fresh crusty bread and butter.
A much beloved comical take on British Horror
A much beloved comical take on British Horror | Source

© 2014 Pollyanna Jones

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    • profile image

      Ric 9 months ago

      Surprised at the pumpkin lanterns I didn't see one of those until well into my teens and remember wondering what they were in the movies! Our lanterns were nearly always turnips (swedes) occasionally parsnips and other root veg used for fun and the smell of burnt turnip brings me right back to the cold

    • profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago

      Dear Pollyanna,

      Sunday night--Oct. 19

      Have a Safe and Blessed week ahead.

      Your Friend for Life,

      Kenneth

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      It is terrific fun, Kim. We make sure there is an old sheet on the floor if there are young children playing, but be sure to have the vac handy regardless! I hope you enjoy it this Halloween.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      It is terrific fun, Kim. We make sure there is an old sheet on the floor if there are young children playing, but be sure to have the vac handy regardless! I hope you enjoy it this Halloween.

    • klidstone1970 profile image

      இڿڰۣ-- кιмвєяℓєу 2 years ago from Niagara Region, Canada

      I have never heard of the Flour Cake Game. Sounds like fun. I can imagine it being quite the clean up afterward, but must be worth the effort. I'm going to try it with the kids. Thanks for sharing your Halloween experiences. Best wishes. Kim

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Haha oh dear..! Thanks for the shares, Carolyn! I'm aware there may be a link between the trick or treat custom and that of door-to-door mumming, although of course as you know, these are on completely different days of the year. As for those Scots-Irish boys... it sounds like trouble to me! :-)

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 2 years ago

      I loved that you shared various aspects from traditions to food to personal anecdotes, and the pictures really add to the flavor of the article :-) upvoted and shared here on HP and on the Celtic Guide FB page :-)

      By the way, the fact of Trick or Treat being an American import always leads to a bone of contention with me over a certain misunderstanding. It was an American import, but came to America with Scots-Irish immigrants, and then evolved into what it is today. It started in the US mainly as a mischief making night, bonfires, pranks, sometimes vandalism brought over by young Scots-Irish boys running around causing trouble (we had a lot of those!). There are accounts of this in folklore journals from Scotland in the 1800s. And obviously had old Celtic roots before that. A lot of things came to America and then got "supersized" before then being sent back home to the UK. By then it was unrecognizable to British people, so there is a lot of mention of things being American inventions that are not...

      I guess just comments I've seen, like that Americans invented Jack o' lanterns, and one English woman said Americans were so stupid they added the O to make it look Irish... smack my friggin head. Had to give her a lesson on CONTRACTIONS. Eventually banned her from commenting because she was so negative and ignorant, lol. Ok tangent!

      Anyway Halloween has a fascinating history and we don't often hear accounts of it in England, so I'm glad you shared this with us :-)

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      My Dear Pollyanna,

      You are always welcome. I am serious. You ARE a very talented writer and I just urge you to keep it up. You are bound to taste plenty of success.

      And I will always be in your corner.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks Kenneth, I will :-) Your kind feedback is very humbling!

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hey, Pollyanna,

      You are very welcome. I just told you the truth. You are so talented that I am really in awe of this hub and your works.

      You do a terrific job. So keep it up.

      I hope you received my Note of Thanks for you following me. I sent it today.

      Talk to you later and keep in touch.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      Kenneth, thank you so much for the lovely feedback. I have been enjoying writing on HubPages, even though I am still finding my feet. There is always something unusual to find to write about, and I love to share these topics with others.

      Knowing that they are appreciated and enjoyed means so much to me, and I am sincerely thankful that you and others take the time to read through and leave comments on what you think.

      I certainly will take you up on posting and asking for help if I need it! I am still learning about the etiquette on here and where things are. ;-) Have a lovely evening, my friend!

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Polyanna,

      Terrific writing. Loved the subject. Very informative and thanks for sharing. Voted up and all across.

      Your profile page does not have a Send Fan Mail slot, so I am going to lave my Note of Thanks for Following me in this area.

      I wanted to send you my Personal Note of Heartfelt Thanks for becoming one of my followers. This gesture means so much to me. I just hope in some way, I can pay you back someday, and that you will not regret following me.

      Always feel free to write me about anything you want with total-confidence. I am always up for new ideas in hub-writing, healthy criticism, and good input on how I can make my hubs better.

      I

      just want you to know that I love your work and encourage you to use your gift of writing as much as you can and you will touch a lot of lives.

      Thank you again for being in my world.

      If I can ever be of help to you, just email me and I will do what I can to help you as much as I can.

      Sincerely,

      Your Friend for Life,

      Kenneth

    • Pollyanna Jones profile image
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      Pollyanna Jones 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      I think most festivals are commercialised these days. They were selling Christmas things in the supermarkets here from September! On the bright side, it is a lot easier to find some fun stuff for Halloween. ;-) The soup really is tasty, I hope you enjoy trying it out.

    • CrisSp profile image

      CrisSp 2 years ago from Sky Is The Limit Adventure

      Halloween now days have become very commercialized but just like this hub, it's fun and entertaining plus a bonus recipe of your delicious spicy pumpkin soup. Yum!