Will you be celebrating Hallowe’en this year? Dressing up in spooky headgear, sporting a skeleton suit or carving a pumpkin lantern?
For most of us, it is just another excuse to party (as if we needed one) and admittedly it does add a certain thrill to proceedings. Meanwhile for youngsters, American-style trick-or-treating has become the order of the day.
But as enquiring students, shouldn’t we question why we re-enact remnants of an ancient folk custom? So here are some pointers:
1. The Celts started it all with the festival of Samhain, or summer’s end, which marked the final day of harvest and the Celtic new year. They also believed it was a time when the living and spirit worlds could combine and dark forces would spill out from burial mounds.
2. They marked the day with sacrificial regenerative bonfires, dressed up in animal skins to ward off spirits and carved ghoulish faces out of vegetables, typically turnips. Centuries later, when Irish immigrants took their jack o’lanterns to America, they used pumpkins because they were cheaper.
3. Apparently it was Pope Gregory III who established the three-day celebration of Hallowmas on the basis of “if you can’t beat them, join them”. Reckoning that he could not expect people to give up their pagan harvest festival, he gave it a Christian rebranding starting with All Hallows’ Eve. Candlelight vigils were held at cemeteries while people were encouraged to spend the night praying and fasting in preparation for All Saints’ Day on 1 November, which was dedicated to Christian martyrs and saints, and All Souls’ Day on 2 November dedicated to all other Christian dead.
4. As for trick-or-treating, some trace it back to the mummers tradition – travelling troupes of costumed dancers who would act out stories. It is thought they would also perform dances to scare off ghosts in exchange for food and drink. But it may also be associated with the tradition of poor people going from door to door and offering to pray for the souls of the wealthy in exchange for soul cakes.
Now we’ve sort of set the record straight, those still hell bent on a little ghost hunting this Hallowe’en can do a lot worse than explore the dark past of some Birmingham sites, with a little help from Birmingham Live and these chilling tales.
Just down the road you will find Warstone Cemetery, where the main attractions for the Halloween visitor are the catacombs, a tiered, space-saving solution to combat the cemetery’s sandpit problem. There have been several local reports of supernatural activity there, including a grey image of a young woman in 1930s clothing who passes through walls and even cars. As her appearances coincide with a smell of pear drops, reminiscent of potassium cyanide which was used in gold and silver plating in the Jewellery Quarter, the Birmingham Mail has suggested she was a victim of cyanide poisoning, perhaps by an accident in one of the factories. Another visitor to the catacombs is apparently a young man in a trenchcoat.
If you have taken your seat at one of Birmingham’s popular theatres, you were probably not alone… Apart from fellow theatregoers, the Alexandra Theatre is said to be haunted by former owner Leon Salberg. The stage and cinema tycoon, known as the Pantomime King, took over the venue in 1911 but was found dead in his office on 29 September 1937. Other supposed appearances, say Birmingham Live, are attributed to a former master of the wardrobe department who died in the building, a millitary man in a top hat, a stage manager called Dick jangling his keys and a lady in grey who was reported by a member of staff in 1987.
Finally, just a stone’s throw from University College Birmingham, you could come face to face with one of Birmingham’s founding fathers – Joseph Chamberlain, mayor of the city in 1874. According to Birmingham Live, council workers claim to have seen his spirit – clad in his usual attire of a black velvet coat, monocle and red neck-tie – sat behind his old wooden desk in the Lord Mayor’s office. Sightings are usually accompanied by the smell of cut flowers, which Brummagem Joe insisted on having in his office.
If this has whetted your appetite to find out more about Birmingham’s dark past, check out Birmingham Live for more stories or book on a ghost tour such as those offered by Brum Tours.