The Serpentine Perspective: Halloween traditions

Jack o lantern

It’s Halloween, or the Eve of All Hallows, which is the old word for souls, and the topic that falls on me today is to explore this holiday that is key to the world of Harry Potter but is far less pagan than you’d think. I mean, it’s not like J.K. Rowlings didn’t have a pagan name for the holiday she could have used to separate it from the Christian heritage of Bonnie Scotland where the school is based, or anything. At the time of writing, I have forgotten what Rory is going to write about, so just head to and find out for yourself.

The Ghosts of Hogwarts
First of all, probably because I play Hogwarts Mystery (yes, I don’t just play romances about lieutenants in the Japanese MI5 with ridiculously perfect skin and their colleague who look and talk like my actual husband), but the first thing on my mind is the ghosts. One of the ghosts, as it happens, is a friar. In general, they all seem to be either Medieval or Jacobean and it’s like all the non-Jacobite Highland ballads came to life. Catholicism gives great importance to the spiritual realm, so it’s no surprise that it remained in the folklore of Celtic lands once the Gospel has been brought to them. 

Pumpkins Lanterns 
Many cultures have some folklore around pumpkins and Halloween, most famously the Irish and the legend of Jack who died and was not let into either Heaven or Hell because he tricked the Devil for monetary gain, and so these carved faces were all over the place to scare his ghost away. However, Scotland has its own folklore. Such lights were bad omens. Given how much stuff in the Harry Potter series has taken place on October 31st, I think the Highlanders had a point. 

Twitter Joke

Alright, there was no real trick or treating at Hogwarts, but it’s not like they did not empty out the whole of Honeydukes for it. In Catholic cultures, there is to this day the tradition of making dead-related sweets for the Day of the Dead on the 2nd of November, while trick or treating specifically comes from the tradition of going from house to house praying for the dead of each family and receiving sweets as a donation for the thought. Personally, I think this is a tradition that needs to come back, as nobody is praying for the dead of non-Catholic households. Also, I’m laughing so hard at Emily’s joke in that tweet, I just needed to share it in case you missed it.

Medieval Christians had an absolute obsession with death, which is unsurprising since they had it around all the time, but also with the number of illnesses and plagues you don’t really think they needed things to be reminded of the reality and universality of death. However, from the danse macabre to memento mori (which in fact originated in classical antiquity), a lot of the art of Medieval Europe involved skeletons and skulls as part of the wider conversation about the meaning of life, and what happens afterwards. It did not end with the Middle Ages either: the Renaissance had a whole literary genre dedicated to a good death, the ars moriendi (literally the art of dying). Allegedly, Mary Queen of Scots owned a watch in the shape of a skull with the quote from Horace, “Pale death knocks with the same tempo upon the huts of the poor and the towers of Kings.”

Personally, I love the gothic genre because it’s a good reminder of the reality of life that the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment that we still hold on to dismisses, so I love some spooky stuff (especially vampires, especially when they’re played by Michael Sheen) and I love the folk traditions listed above. However you choose to celebrate (or not), happy Halloween, and remember that you will die. 

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