Halloween originates in Ireland, as the ancient Celtic festival known as ‘Samhain’, which was celebrated at the end of the harvest to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The Celts believed that on 31st October the boundary dissolved between those alive and dead, so that the dead could cause damage to the crops. The festivities would include a bonfire, to ward off evil spirits, and masks would be worn in attempt to mimic or placate them.
The Christian festival of All Saints Day (or ‘All Hallows’ Day’) was changed to November 1st in the 9th century, so that the Pagan festival become known as ‘All-hallow-even’, being the eve of All Hallows’ Day, which over time was shortened to Halloween and the two festivals became synonymous.
There are many customs associated with Halloween, some of which people have believed would tell them their future. For example, unmarried women were told that if they sat in a darkened room and gazed into a mirror on Halloween night, the face of their future husband would appear in it. If a skull appeared then they were destined to die a spinster. The custom is illustrated in this greetings card from 1904.
However, in modern times, Halloween has been more about the telling of spine-chilling stories of ghosts and ghouls, but unlike my cartoon alter ego I have never actually seen one, nor do I wish to, especially as I have to constantly reassure my children that they do not exist.
Nonetheless, I’ve had some ‘spooky’ experiences since I started researching my family tree, and what with Halloween approaching, I thought that I would ask the members of Family Tree Forum if they too had some spine-chilling tales to tell.
Firstly, I’m convinced that my great grandmother, Maud, is helping me with my research, as all the major breakthroughs on her and her husband’s side of the family have come about through strange sets of coincidences with connections back to her.
I was relieved to hear that I wasn't alone in having these suspicions, as other members felt that they were receiving the same spiritual assistance. Members such as Boudicca and Olde Crone Holden told me that after fruitlessly searching graveyards for their ancestors’ graves, they asked, out of sheer desperation, for them to come and show themselves, only to suddenly find them. In Olde Crone Holden’s case her brother literally tripping over the grave they were looking for.
A spur of the moment decision led Banana and her husband to find his maternal grandfather’s grave, after several previous unsuccessful attempts, on which turned out to be the anniversary of his death. Read her spine-chilling story here: Spiritual Assistance.
One Christmas, Carol-BrightonGirl!! placed flowers on an ancestor’s grave and her kindness was rewarded by the discovery, on the very same day, of a bill signed by him from the saw mill where he worked, on the auction website Ebay. She too believes that her great grandfather is helping with her research.
However, it does appears that our ancestors are not just assisting us in tracing our family tree - Pamdidle firmly believes that her great uncle helps her find a parking space in a nearby town centre; he once lived in the High Street and knew the area very well. Whilst helping with our research (as well as parking), it also seems that our ancestors are looking over our shoulders to make sure that we’re getting the facts right. Once, whilst writing about my great x2 uncle’s suicide, I felt someone breath against my ear. I turned around expecting it to be my husband, but no-one was there. I later found out that my information was incorrect and I was left wondering if he was trying to tell me so.
Boudicca thought that her grandfather, Cyril, was a mean and moody man from the way he looked in the one and only photograph she had of him, especially as her father refused to speak about him. Through her research she discovered that he had suffered from shell-shock in World War One, which had left him mentally ill and led to his mother putting him into an asylum. She’s recently found another photograph of him, this time as a happy, smiling man. She believes that this is his way of telling her that he is pleased that the truth has finally been revealed. You can read Cyril’s story in our ‘Remembering our Military Ancestors’ issue next month.
Liz from Lancs’ grandmother committed suicide when her mother was just three years old. Liz has been able to uncover the facts surrounding her death, and mourns her, comforted by the feeling that her grandmother is pleased that she has done so.
Researching your family certainly puts you in touch with your roots, as you discover where the various branches of your family originate. The vast majority of my ancestors come from Sussex, and although I have since moved away, I still feel drawn to and feel most at home in the county. Boudicca feels the same about her Suffolk roots and cannot wait to return. Pamdidle’s family has lived in the same area for at least 350 years, which no doubt explains why she has no desire to live anywhere else.
Helen in Berkshire felt surprisingly at home in Huntingdon on the first night of her honeymoon. It was only many years later that she discovered why – her ancestors had come from there. You can read her story here: Deja Vu.
In 1987, Cherry Tradewell helped out preparing for a wedding at St Deny's Church in Rotherfield, East Sussex. She had some time to spare, so wandered around the churchyard only to discover many graves with the same surname as her mother’s maiden name. Many years later, when the genealogy bug took hold, did she find out that they were all related to her.
Whilst at secondary school, Michael competed in the marathon along the Lincolnshire sea-bank between Boston and Skegness. After completing it many more times, he was very familiar with the checkpoints which were named after nearby villages, and it was only much later that he found out that his great grandmother’s family had come from two of these villages.
The discovery of old photographs seems to have a spine-chilling effect on some of us. A postcard of a graveyard in a village where many of my ancestors lived has recently come into my possession. It was taken a year after my great x2 grandmother was buried there and I can see that the writing on her grave is very clear, although it’s now very weathered. There are also empty spaces where I know her children and their families are now buried, which leaves me with the feeling that I’ve literally stepped back in time every time I look at it.
On returning home after a trip to find the grave of her great x2 grandparents, Merry Monty Montgomery found a haunting photograph of her great x2 grandmother standing near to it. Read her spooky tale: The Ghost of Mary Buck.
The sceptical amongst you are probably thinking that all these incidences are purely coincidental, or attributed to an over-active imagination, but as I’ve discovered, when you start tracing your family you certainly encounter more than you bargain for.
© Velma Dinkley 2008
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