Guising, mumming, and souling

Hallowe’en is just around the corner. In Ireland recently, I commented on the huge uptake of this once pagan holiday. I can’t remember a time when I saw so many houses decorated. The place is awash with white cotton cobwebs, lifesize figures of witches and warlocks, and all sorts of other stuff designed to put the fear of God – well, not God, but something else – into you if you stumbled on it unknowingly on a dark night.

I’m told that it really took off last year when, in the midst of lockdown, people were looking for some way to do anything that would break the dull monotony of the stay-at-home routine. Hungary, too, has its fair share of witches and goblins. Recently harvested pumpkins with their ghoulish faces have taken up residence on doorsteps and in gardens and the decorations have been dusted off and put on display.

In pagan times, the festival of Samhain marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of a long, cold winter. It was when the Celts of old celebrated New Year. On the night of 31 October, the boundary between the living and the dead blurred and ghosts found it easier to return to earth. People back then believed that if they left their houses that night, they might bump into a ghost and so disguised themselves by wearing masks to blend in.

Then along came the Romans, who brought with them two feasts that fell around the same time: Feralia, on which they commemorated the dead and Pomona, when they celebrated the goddess of fruit and trees whose symbol was an apple. And who from the Celtic world hasn’t bobbed for an apple on Hallowe’en?

Moving right along, on 13 May, 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV established the Catholic feast of All Martyrs’ Day. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III broadened its scope to include All Saints, too. And he moved the date to 1 November. In Middle English, a form of the English language spoken after the Norman conquest in the mid-eleventh century until the late fifteenth century, All Saints’ Day was known as ‘Alholowmesse’. All Hallows Eve. Hallowe’en.

All Souls’ Day, 2 November, made its appearance in 1000 AD. It was, perhaps, an attempt by the church to trump the Celtic festival of the dead. Whatever – it’s all happening  around these three days.

Many countries like their trick-or-treating when kids dress up and go from house to house collecting sweets. The custom has been borrowed from what was once known as guising or mumming in England, Scotland, and Ireland. People would dress in costume and recite a poem, sing a song, or tell a story in exchange for a treat. I suspect a few card or magic tricks might also have been involved.

And we can’t forget about souling, when on 1 November in England, the less fortunate would visit the neighbourhood rich begging for soul cakes in return for a promise to pray for their dead relatives.

Other parts of the world, like Mexico, Latin America, and Spain, begin their three-day celebration of All Souls Day on Hallowe’en, the day they believe the dead return to where they lived when they were alive. There, in their homes, families build altars with sweets and flowers and food and drink, all ready for the hoolie. Some leave out a basin of water and a towel so that the spirits can clean up before the party starts.

In America, though, it’s not so much about the dead but about the living. The party. The family. The festivities. Hallowe’en is an evening of fun and games popularised in the late nineteenth century. In Hungary, a country whose cemeteries light up on 1 and 2 November, with mass visits to honour their dead, the commercial side of Hallowe’en is catching on, too.

Top of my list of things to see and do is the display of jack-o-lanterns up on Heroes Square – Töklámpás Fesztivál. It simply has to be seen to be believed. Amazing.

I only recently discovered that the name jack-o-lantern stems from an Irish story about a chap called Stingy Jack. Legend has it that Stingy Jack invited the devil for a drink and was too mean to pay for it. By some trickery or other, he managed to convince the devil to turn himself into a coin so that he, Stingy Jack, could pay for the booze. But the coin, instead of going to the barman, went into Stingy Jack’s pocket next to a silver cross that prevented the devil from changing back.

Perhaps bored and wanting company, Stingy Jack eventually agreed to free the devil on the promise he would leave him alone and if he died during the year, wouldn’t come for his soul.

Another year rolled around, and the pair got together again. This time, Stingy Jack convinced the gullible devil to climb up an apple tree to pick some fruit. While he was up there, Stingy Jack carved a cross into the tree trunk, trapping the devil in the branches above. He stayed there until he promised not to bother Stingy Jack for a decade.

But our Jack didn’t last that long. When he died, God wouldn’t let him into heaven. And the devil, still annoyed, wouldn’t let him into hell. Stingy Jack was sent on his way with nothing but a lump of coal, which he lit and put into a carved-out turnip. It’s been lighting his way around the world ever since. Jack-of-the-Lantern. Jack-o-lantern. Who knew?

In the popularisation of the holiday, many of the old superstitions have been lost. The Hallowe’en barmbrack is something I’ve never been able to bring myself to eat as the potential bad far outweighs the good. To find a pea in your slice meant you wouldn’t marry before next Hallowe’en. That never bothered me. But to find a piece of cloth and be doomed to poverty, or a ring telling me I would marry, or a matchstick that foretold an unhappy marriage, none were worth the risk of finding the coin that predicted wealth.

I never knew that Hallowe’en superstitions revolved around matchmaking and finding true love.

Back in the day, the cook of the house would hide a ring in her mashed potatoes and whoever found it would have true love to nurse them through the agony of a broken tooth. And while we were busy with bracks and spuds, the Scots were burning hazelnuts. According to that superstition, to find out which of your suitors was the one, all you had to do was name a hazelnut after each, throw them all into the fire and whichever one burned rather than popped was the future husband.

If that didn’t suit, you could try eating walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmeg before going to bed on Hallowe’en and you’d be sure to dream of your husband-to-be. You could try to peel an apple in one peel and then throw it over your shoulder. When it hit the floor, it would show the initial of the lucky man. And, of course, the first one to bob the apple would be the first one down the aisle. What was the preoccupation with marriage?!

However you’re celebrating, stay safe. And if you’re closing the door and locking the gate and staying home, enjoy that, too. Me? I’ll be sleeping through it and heading to the cemeteries on 1 November.

First published in the Budapest Times 26 October 2021

4 Responses

  1. Good tale of Jack-O-Lantern – thanks for the education. As kids we went guising for pennies, collected to give to the nearby home for war-blinded servicemen – No sweets or treats! And I can still smell the carved turnip lanterns we carried…

  2. Hungary has it’s own superstition around divining the name of the future husband. Dumplings are prepared, and pieces of paper are placed inside them, each with a name on it. The dumplings are then cooked, and the first one that rises to the surface contains the name of the future husband. There is also an empty dumpling added, which means that the girl will not be marrying in the coming year.
    I find it interesting that eating nutmeg before bed helped dream of the future husband, because of its possible hallucinogenic effect.

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