Churches—Churches figure in Halloween history not only as places of worship on ALL SAINTS’ DAY and ALL SOULS’ DAY, but also as much-frequented sites in FORTUNE-TELLING customs.
In Wales, women used to congregate in parish churches on the night of Halloween and read their fates from the flames of the CANDLES they held; they also heard the names or saw the COFFINS of the parishioners who would die within the year. Another Welsh practice directed the curious to sit in the church porch at MIDNIGHT on Halloween in order to witness a procession of all those who would die in the parish during the coming year, all dressed in their finest clothes. Some versions of the custom state that the watcher must arrive promptly at 11 P.M., and be prepared to wait two hours; to fall asleep during this time means the watcher will die soon. If the watcher saw an apparition who turned back from the procession, that person would suffer a severe illness but would recover.
In Lincolnshire, all members of the parish would be expected to enter the church, but those who were destined to die wouldn’t leave (and a couple who exited arm-in-arm would be married soon). Also in Lincolnshire, some participants reported feeling compelled to conduct a watch every year, while in other areas the watch must be conducted for three years before one would actually see the procession. In another variation of this custom, it was necessary to run around the parish church THREE times and then peep through the keyhole of the door to view the ghostly procession. In some of the Northern Counties of England, it was believed that the parish clerk would lead the spectral parade through the churchyard. These “church porch” customs were actually most common on St. Mark’s Eve (April 24), and also on MIDSUMMER’S EVE.
A Welsh story concerns a man who was working in the church around the end of October; on the 31st, the workers received a bonus, and the worker in question promptly spent his on drink. When he returned to the job unfit to work, he fell asleep in a pew, and was forgotten; he awoke at midnight to the sound of a great commotion. Although he tried to crawl from the aisle, some unseen force impelled him back into his seat, and in the darkness he heard a great procession. He glimpsed the shadowy face and form of a neighbor, and exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy upon my soul,” after which he felt the strength to move. Even though the doors had been locked by the sexton, they were now wide open, and the worker fled; the next morning the doors were once again locked. The neighbor the worker had glimpsed died within the year.
Sometimes the church porch watch was used as a marriage divination; in this case, the watcher must lay a flower on the porch at exactly 11 P.M., leave the church, and return at midnight. The watcher would see a bridal procession (the number of bridesmaids would indicate how many months would pass before the wedding took place), nothing at all (the watcher would not be married that year), or a funeral procession (the watcher would remain unmarried until death). A Welsh story tells of three young girls in Glamorganshire who went to the church on Halloween and peeped through the keyhole of the church door. One girl saw nothing; the second saw her grandfather; but the third saw herself as an aged bride, while the bridegroom fell at the foot of the altar steps. The third girl remained unmarried until she was 45, at which point she accepted a proposal of marriage. The marriage ceremony was conducted successfully, but as the bridal party turned to leave the bridegroom suddenly fell dead at the foot of the altar steps.
In Herefordshire, they tell of a particularly frightening version of the church-porch custom: On Allhallows Eve at midnight, one would look through the church windows and see an unearthly light inside, and the pulpit would be occupied by Satan in a monkhabit. His sermon will include the names of those to die in the coming year. One French story about this custom involves a man named Jack, who heard his own name and promptly died of fright.
The Halloween Encyclopedia Second Edition written by Lisa Morton © 2011 Lisa Morton. All rights reserved