AT this time of year, our ancient ancestors used to light massive bonfires in the belief that they helped the fading sun to gain extra strength to carry it through the winter and the coming new year.

In our calendar, that date became October 31 whilst for the ancient pagans it was the last day of their year.

Their beliefs about the sun were confirmed in the following spring when the days were longer and the temperature warmer. The early pagans knew our Hallowe’en as Samain when the ghosts of their ancestors returned to their former homes.

A great welcome was prepared with bonfires, feasting, music and dancing. We have continued that tradition, except that we call it Hallowe’en and have Christianised it by calling it by that name which means The Eve of All Hallows, hallows being a term meaning saints. In the Christian calendar, therefore, October 31 is the Eve of All Saints, with the feast day of All Saints following on November 1.

We have transferred those bonfires to November 5 which commemorates the York-born Guy Fawkes.

Not surprisingly, other celebrations, often with bonfires, were held on October 31 and November 1. They were a curious mixture of tradition, paganism, Christianity, superstition, a belief in witches and, perhaps not surprisingly, even romance and love.

All made good use of bonfires in their customs and celebrations. The number and variety of names given to this period may perhaps suggest the range of activities enjoyed at this time. Here is a list that may not be complete Hallowe’en, Eve of All Hallows, Eve of All Saints, Samain, Winter’s Eve, Allantide, Ash Riddling Night, Hodening Horse Day, Nutcrack Night, Snail Tracing Night, Witch Lating Night, Trick and Treat Night and perhaps Conker Day, one of several conker days around this time.

Some of these will require explanation. Snail Tracing Night involved a lovesick girl placing a snail overnight in a closed dish. Its trail in the dish was thought to form the initials of her future husband.

Witch lating night was celebrated by a person going up to the moors between 11pm and midnight whilst carrying a lighted candle. If the candle burned steadily it indicated its carrier would remain free from witchcraft for the next 12 months. If the candle flame went out however, it meant the carrier would suffer some great evil during the year.

Ash riddling meant that the fire ashes remained in the grate overnight, and if a footprint appeared in them, it meant the person who saw it would die within the year.

Allantide seems to have been restricted to Cornwall when, on Hallowe’en, apples were given to every member of a family to ensure their good health throughout the coming year.

An unwelcome Hallowe’en custom that we have inherited from America is Trick and Treat. It was usually conducted on Mischief Night, November 4, when children played tricks on their friends and neighbours. When I lived in a cottage with a garden gate, I always removed the gate on Mischief Night and concealed it, otherwise it might be carried off and hidden.

Trick and Treat was different. It could sometimes be a subtle form of blackmail. Children knock on your door and when you respond, you are offered the choice of giving the visitors a gift of some kind, say sweets or money, or else a prank or trick will be played on you or your house.

An interesting custom used to be carried out at Whitby on Hallowe’en. Love-sick youngsters had to climb the 199 steps up Whitby Abbey, then shout the name of their beloved across the waves that crashed onto the rocks below the Abbey. If they got a response by the sound of bells ringing beneath the waves, their future destiny was assured.

This ritual seems to have developed from Henry VIII’s action of stealing the Abbey bells during his ransacking of the Abbey during the Reformation. He had them put aboard a ship heading for London, but just off Whitby a storm developed at sea and the ship sank, taking the bells to the bottom of the North Sea where they remain to this day. It is said they can still be heard during stormy weather.

Some of the customs of Hallowe’en have been carried over to the next day, November 1. In addition to being All Saints’ Day, it is sometimes known as All Hallows or Hallowmas Day or even Hallow Rood Day. During Mass on this day, all those saints without a feast day of their own are remembered, as indeed are all deceased persons of the parish.

The name of this day is sometimes corrupted into Hollantide or All Hollans. An old weather saying reads, “If ducks do slide at Hollantide, at Christmas they will swim; but if the ducks do swim at Hollantide, at Christmas they will slide.”

Tempting birds

A FEW days before writing these notes, our garden seemed full of birds despite our feeders not being refilled. They comprised the usual garden birds – finches of various kinds, lots of blue tits and great tits along with a few coal tits, a blackbird or two, a hedge sparrow otherwise known as a dunnock and, sadly, the carcase if a goldcrest that had apparently flown into a window pane and died as a consequence.

Then, in spite of refilled feeders and a splendid show of grapes on our grapevine, all disappeared. Where had they gone, and why? Then before writing these notes, most of them returned and started to feed. Among them was a magnificent carrion crow looking black and fearsome.

I suspect the grapes are not the attraction. I must say that in spite of their tempting appearance, they are far from tasty. It seems the birds have tried and tested them unless they are plotting to visit us very early one morning to strip the vine.

We hope they do that. I am sure the grapes will be more nourishing than peanuts and I fear they will not be enjoyed by us or any of our human visitors. They are much too sour and rather too small!

Nature graves

THE sad end to our visiting goldcrest demanded a seemly funeral for him and so I gave him one similar to any of our goldfish that end their days. I have a secret and quiet place beneath a hedge and I know that if I lay a carcase there it will be dealt with.

Nature’s gravediggers are the appropriately named Sexton Beetles, sometimes known as Burying Beetles. Easily identified by a black body with orange bands, they work as a pair and will dig a hole beneath the carcase, strip it of its skin or feathers, then drag it down into the hole.

The female lays her eggs near the carcase and when they hatch, the female will feed them until they gain strength when they will consume the carcase their parents have buried.

These beetles help to keep our countryside tidy and clean and are able to smell a carcase two miles away. Useful and amazing insects.