Museum staff and volunteers are off for a power nap in a darkened room with a cuppa now October half term and Halloween are over. Then it is back to it as the Christmas preparations such as wrapping presents and building grottos and putting up decorations begin. The week or two around Halloween is now one of the busiest times on the museum year calendar as we welcome thousands of visitors and host many events and activities for all ages. When Sandwell Museums first started doing Halloween events about 20 years ago there was a spooky evening tour for adults and then a more developed ghost stories and fright nights. In fact we were one of the first places doing this kind of thing and the museum curator at the time thought ‘this was something you shouldn’t do in a museum’. Some people may still think that but it has certainly grown and we now do many events over the period.
Back to this later but why have we been running around in purple wigs and black capes, playing creepy games and and running spooky activities for the last couple of weeks? How has this time of year become associated with ghouls and ghosts – it’s all a bit of fun now but where has it all come from?
If you ask many older people they will say that Halloween is an American invention and that when they were children it was more about Bonfire Night and Halloween was far less important than it is today. Even in my lifetime (I’m in my mid forties) I remember children having created scarecrow like figures of Guy Fawkes out of old clothes and wheeling it around in a wheelbarrow asking for a ‘penny for the Guy’. The idea being that they ‘Guys’ would then be burned on the bonfire. This is a sight that is pretty much never seen today. I also remember there being a few Halloween parties when I was a child but there certainly wasn’t the choice of costumes and accessories that there is today and people rarely went ‘Trick or Treating’. In fact as most of you over 40 will remember there were 2 choices of Halloween costumes – white sheets or bin liners and maybe a mask or a wig! These days it seems Halloween has taken over as the dominant autumn festival over Bonfire Night (as well as there now being lots of other autumn festival celebrations to brighten up this time of year with new communities moving into Britain over the last 100 years-showcasing how many cultures have autumn lights festivals)
However, we’ve only been celebrating Bonfire night since the year after the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Almost immediately the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot was celebrated with bonfires and the burning of effigies of the pope and later Guy Fawkes. It was very convenient for the Protestant government that Robert Catesby and his fellow Catholic conspirators tried to blow up the King and Parliament on 5th November just after Halloween and All Saints’ Day as this was a rather Catholic festival. The autumn festival of lights, fires, celebration and commemoration was shifted, in England at least away from All Hallows and All Saints and onto Bonfire Night and commemorating the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. So for many hundreds of years Halloween took a back seat in England (So if you are enjoying a bonfire party this year then take a moment to remember, while you are waving your sparkler around, that the festival is born out of religious tensions, and the crushing of a terrorist plot born out of persecution and led to brutal executions- just saying!)
Like Easter and Christmas, Halloween has its origins in much older festivals that were later incorporated into Christianity. These festivals noticeably follow changes of seasons and celebrations of new life, coming of light, harvests, encouraging spring to come back, light in mid-winter etc.
It is believed that the ancient festival of Samhain marked the end of the life of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark cold winter and death. The festival symbolised the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
Like Easter and Christmas the autumn festival of Samhain was taken on and changed by the church in the 700sAD. “All Hallows’ Day” or “All Saints Day”; originally a day to remember those who had died for their beliefs celebrated on 13th May until Pope Gregory had the date moved to 1st November. It is thought that in doing so, he was attempting to incorporate the old autumn festival of the dead with a related but church approved celebration. Catholic countries today still commemorate the dead at this time eg think of the Day of the Dead in Mexico which is a big festival and in Malta November is the month of the dead when you visit your deceased relatives.
The night or evening of Samhain therefore became known as All-hallows, seen as a time of the year when many believed that the spirit world can make contact with the physical world, a night when magic is at its most potent.
All Hallows eve became Halloween traditionally celebrated by games such as bobbing for apples (in itself associated with a Roman tradition celebrated on 31st October), telling stories and carving faces into hollowed-out swedes and turnips (which isn’t easy as they are very hard vegetables). These faces would be lit by a candle and the vegetable lanterns displayed on doorsteps to ward off any evil spirits or light the way for spirits to get back to their own world. Bonfires were also lit to ward away evil spirits so light was very much part of Halloween celebrations. so it is easy to see how some of these traditions easily developed and shifted around Bonfire Night after the Gunpowder Plot.
However in the last few years Halloween has been making a come back and in a major way – and yes there are American imports such as pumpkins and ‘trick or treat’ but in essence Halloween is very much a festival which was celebrated in England centuries ago. In fact even the ‘trick or treat’ may have come from a much older European tradition which certainly until very recently was still practised in Scotland. Children dressed up and pretended to be evil spirits and went ‘guising’. In centuries gone by it was thought that by disguising children in this way they would blend in with the spirits that were abroad that night. Children arriving at a house so ‘disguised’ would receive an offering to ward off evil.
This all however must be taken with a warning – in the 1800s in many areas an attempt was made to reintroduce ancient traditions which actually weren’t ancient at all but reinvented or just invented -so it is difficult to say how many of the ancient traditions are fully ancient.
As for the Gunpowder Plot- Well Sandwell had it’s very own Gunpowder plotters!
The West Midlands found itself very much at the heart of the Gunpowder plot. Even though Guy Fawkes was discovered with barrels of gunpowder in London, many of the conspirators had land and houses in the Midlands. Many gentry families in the early 1600s in the Midlands remained Catholics whereas the up and coming ‘middling sort’ such as the Turtons at Oak House were Puritans (staunch Protestants), so would not have been sympathetic to the plotters cause.
The showdown against most of the plotters and the Sheriff of Worcester took place at Holbeche Hall in Staffordhsire but two of the plotters had already left on their way towards Rowley Regis. The two plotters were Robert Wintour and Stephen Lyttleton. They were on their way to find sanctuary with Stephen’s relative, Humphrey Lyttleton at Hagley House. Before the plotters reached Hagley House they took shelter in barns and farms in Rowley Regis which would have been part of Humphrey Lyttleton’s land. Stephen Lyttleton and Robert Wintour were eventually discovered in January 1606 and taken to London for execution. The Rowley Regis farmers didn’t get away with having hidden the plotters and were executed in Wolverhampton.
We hope you enjoyed our Halloween spooky fun, autumnal activities and half term fun. It may be spooky season but the event fairies were working hard! Museum staff with help from our fabulous volunteers organised all the activities, dressed up and delivered the activities, decorated the buildings, carved pumpkins, made up stories, quizzes and trails, put together craft activities, cut out tickets and trails and generally worked really hard so we hope you had a great time. There’s still some autumn activities to go and then we’ll have a great programme of festive fun and winter wonder starting in late November.
visit our listings page at http://www.sandwell.gov.uk/joininmuseums for details of our Christmas activities which will be listed by the first week in November.