It was believed that evil spirits sometimes played tricks on October 31. They could also do all kinds of damage to property. Some people tried to ward of the witches by painting magic signs on their barns. Others tried to frighten them away by nailing a piece of iron, such as a horseshoe, over the door.
Many fears and superstitions grew up about this day. An old Scotch superstition was that witches – those who had sold their souls to the devil – left in their beds on Halloween night a stick made by magic to look like themselves. Then they would fly up the chime attended by a black cat.
In Ireland, and some other parts of Great Britain, it was believed, that fairies spirited away young wives, whom they returned dazed and amnesic 366 days later.
When Halloween night fell, people in some places dressed up and tried to resemble the souls of the dead. They hoped that the ghosts would leave peacefully before midnight. They carried food to the edge of town or village and left it for the spirits.
In Wales, they believed that the devil appeared in the shape of a pig, a horse, or a dog. On that night, every person marked a stone and put it in a bonfire. If a person's stone was missing the next morning, he or she would die within a year.
Much later, when Christianity came to Great Britain and Ireland, the Church wisely let the people keep their old feast. But it gave it a new association when in the 9th century a festival in honour of all saints (All Hallows) was fixed on November 1. In the 11th century November 2 became All Souls' Day to honour the souls of the dead, particularly those who died during the year.
Christian tradition included the lighting of bonfires and carring blazing torches all around the fields. In some places masses of flaming staw were flung into the air. When these ceremonies were over, everyone returned home to feast on the new crop of apples and nuts, which are the traditional Halloween foods. On that night, people related their experience with strange noises and spooky shadows and played traditional games.
Halloween customs today follow many of the ancient traditions, though their significance has long since disappeared.
A favourite Halloween custom is to make a jack-j'-lantern. Children take out the middle of the pumpkin, cut hole holes for the eyes, nose and mouth in its side and, finally, they put a candle inside the pumpkin to scare their friends. The candle burning inside makes the orange face visible from far away on a dark night – and the pulp makes a delicious pumpkin-pie.
People in England and Ireland once carved out beets, potatoes, and turnips to make jack-o'-lanterns on Halloween. When the Scots and Irish came to the United States, they brought their customs with them. But they began to carve faces on pumpkins because they were more plentiful in autumn than turnips. Nowadays, British carve faces on pumpkins, too.
According to an Irish legend, jack-o'-lanterns were named for a man called Jack who was notorious for his drunkenness and being stingy. One evening at the local pub, the Devil appeared to take his soul. Clever Jack persuaded the Devil to "have one drink together before we go". To pay for his drink the Devil turned himself into a sixpence. Jack immediately put it into his wallet. The Devil couldn't escape from it because it had a catch in the form of a cross. Jack released the Devil only when the latter promised to leave him in peace for another year. Twelve months later, Jack played another practical joke on the Devil, letting him down from a tree only on the promise that he would never purse him again. Finally, Jack's body wore out. He could not enter heaven because he was a miser. He could not enter hell either, because he played jokes on the Devil. Jack was in despair. He begged the Devil for a live coal to light his way out of the dark. He put it into a turnip and, as the story goes, is still wandering around the earth with his lantern.
Halloween is something called Beggars' Night or Trick or Treat night. Some people celebrate Beggars' Night as Irish children did in the 17th century. They dress up as ghosts and witches and go into the streets to beg. And children go from house to house and say: "Trick or treat!", meaning "Give me a treat or I'll play a trick on you". Some groups of "ghosts" chant Beggars' Night rhymes:
Trick or treat,
Smell our feet.
We want something
Good to eat.
In big cities Halloween celebrations often include special decorating contests. Young people are invited to soap shop-windows, and they get prizes for the best soap-drawings.
In old times, practical jokes were even more elaborate. It was quite normal to steal gates, block house doors, and cover chimneys with turf so that smoke could not escape. Blame for resulting chaos was naturally placed on the "spirits".
At Halloween parties the guests wear every kind of costume. Some people dress up like supernatural creatures, other prefers historical or political figures. You can also meet pirates, princesses, Draculas, Cinderellas, or even Frankenstein's monsters at a Halloween festival.
At Halloween parties children play traditional games. Many games date back to the harvest festivals of very ancient times. One of the most popular is called bobbing for apples. One child at a time has to get apples from a tub of water without using hands. But how to do this? By sinking his or her face into the water and biting the apple!
Another game is pin-the-tail-on-the –donkey. One child is blind folded and spun slowly so that he or she will become dizzy. Then the child must find a paper donkey haging on the wall and try to pin a tail onto the back.
And no Halloween party is complete without at least one scary story. It helps too create an air of mystery.
Certain fortunetelling methods began in Europe hundreds of years ago and became an important part of Halloween. For example, such object as a coin, a ring, and a thimble were baked into a cake or other food. It was believed that the person who found the coin in the cake would become wealthy. The one who found the ring would marry soon, but the person who got the thimble would never get married.
Unfortunately now most people do not believe in evil spirits. They know that evil spirits do not break steps, spill garbage or pull down fences. If property is damaged, they blame naughty boys and girls. Today, Halloween is still a bad night for the police...
March 1st is a very important day for Welsh people. It's St. David's Day. He's the "patron" or national saint of Wales. On March 1st, the Welsh celebrate St. Davids Day and wear daffodils in the buttonholes of their coats or jackets.
On February 14th it's Saint Valentine's Day in Britain. It is not a national holiday. Banks and offices do not close, but it is a happy little festival in honour of St. Valentine. On this day, people send Valentine cards to their husbands, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends. You can also send a card to a person you do not know. But traditionally you must never write your name on it. Some British newspapers have got a page for Valentine's Day messages on February 14th.
This lovely day is widely celebrated among people of all ages by the exchanging of "valentines".
Saint Valentine was a martyr but this feast goes back to pagan times and the Roman feast of Lupercalia. The names of young unmarried girls were put into a vase. The young men each picked a name, and discovered the identity of their brides.
This custom came to Britain when the Romans invaded it. But the church moved the festival to the nearest Christian saint's day: this was Saint Valentine's Day.
Midsummer's Day, June 24th, is the longest day of the year. On that day you can see a very old custom at Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, England. Stonehenge is on of Europe's biggest stone circles. A lot of the stones are ten or twelve metres high. It is also very old. The earliest part of Stonehenge is nearly 5,000 years old. But what was Stonehenge? A holy place? A market? Or was it a kind of calendar? Many people think that the Druids used it for a calendar. The Druids were the priests in Britain 2,000 years ago. They used the sun and the stones at Stonehenge to know the start of months and seasons. There are Druids in Britain today, too. And every June 24th a lot of them go to Stonehenge. On that morning the sun shines on one famous stone – the Heel stone. For the Druids this is a very important moment in the year. But for a lot of British people it is just a strange old custom.