The origins of Halloween
The name Halloween (or Hallowe’en) dates back to around 1745, and is an abbreviation of “All Hallows’ Eve”, which first appears in 1556; it is also known as All Saints’ Eve. It is an annual celebration on 31 October, the eve of the Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day, and it begins the three days of Allhallowtide, the period in the church’s year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows). Within Allhallowtide, the traditional theme of All Hallows’ Eve is to use humour and ridicule to confront the power of death. It is generally believed that All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianised feast, originating from ancient Celtic harvest festivals, possibly pagan, particularly the Irish Samhain (pronounced sow-in).
Samhain celebrated the ancient Celtic New Year which began on November 1, and marked the end of summer and of the harvest, and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year which was generally associated with death. The Celts believed that on the night before their New Year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred (as in Colette Coen’s modern day short story ‘Sexton Way‘). On the night of October 31 the Celts celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth; people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off the roaming ghosts. To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to their gods. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebrations finished, they used flame from the sacred bonfire to relight their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening; it was thought that this would help to protect them through the harshness of the coming winter.
During the period of Roman occupation of Celtic territories, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional celebration of Samhain. One was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day when they honoured Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol was the apple, and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples.
In 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to all Christian martyrs, and established the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day on May 13. It was in the eighth century that Pope Gregory III expanded the festival to include all saints as well as all martyrs, and moved the date from May 13 to November 1, calling it All Saints’ Day.
By the 9th century the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and replaced the older Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honour the dead. It is widely believed that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
It was in the second half of the nineteenth century that the celebration of Halloween became popularised across America, with the arrival of millions of immigrants fleeing Ireland’s potato famine.
Traditional Halloween activities
The American tradition of “trick-or-treating” probably dates back to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During these festivities, the poor would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling” was eventually taken up by children, who would visit nearby houses and be given ale, food, and money.
The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots, from a time when winter was an uncertain and frightening season. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter were full of constant worry. On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they may meet them if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks if they went out after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. And to keep ghosts away from their homes, people would place bowls of food outside their houses to appease them and prevent them from attempting to enter.
During the original Celtic end-of-summer festival, people felt especially close to deceased relatives and friends. For these friendly spirits, they set places at the dinner table, left treats on doorsteps and along the side of the road, and lit candles to help their dead loved ones find their way back to the spirit world. Throughout Britain and Ireland, there is a long tradition of carving lanterns from vegetables, particularly the turnip or swede. The practice of carving vegetable lanterns for Halloween originated from an Irish myth about a man called “Stingy Jack”, a drunkard who, having tricked the devil into sparing his soul for ten years, was eventually doomed to roam the world between the planes of good and evil, with only an ember inside a hollowed turnip to light his way. Traditionally, in Ireland and Scotland, the turnip was used at Halloween, but immigrants to North America used the native pumpkin, which was more readily available and easier to carve. In 1837, the term jack-o’-lantern first appears as a term for a carved vegetable lantern; the carved pumpkin lantern association with Halloween is first recorded in 1866.
Apple bobbing, or duck-apple (dooking in Scotland; snap-apple in Ireland)
The tradition of bobbing for apples dates back to the Roman invasion of Britain, when the conquering army merged their own celebrations with traditional Celtic festivals. The Romans brought with them the apple tree, a representation of the goddess of fruit trees, Pomona.
When an apple is sliced in half, the seeds form a pentagram-like shape, and it is thought that the manifestation of such a symbol meant that the apple could be used to determine marriages at this time of year. From this belief came the game bobbing for apples. During the annual celebration, young unmarried people tried to bite into an apple floating in water or hanging from a string; the first person to bite into the apple would be the next one to be allowed to marry. Girls who placed the apple they had bobbed under their pillows were said to dream of their future lover.
Telling scary stories and watching horror films
These popular traditions are clearly very closely linked to the ghostly origins of Halloween.
Here you can find a list of films set around Halloween.
We hope you have enjoyed our brief history. If you have any of your own Halloween traditions or stories, do let us know by leaving a comment below.