For most people, Halloween is a night when people (especially children) dress up as witches, ghosts or some other supernatural creature, attend parties and go “trick or treating”. But where does this strange tradition and celebration come from?
Like most festivals we celebrate today its origins, timing and traditions are a mixture of influences from down the Centuries – Christian, pagan and modern.
There is no doubt that “Halloween” itself is a relatively modern invention, and has not been around for much more than a hundred years. But the timing of Halloween has links to numerous other festivals. Many ancient festivals occurred at this time of year, including the Roman harvest (Pomona) and the day for honouring ancestors (Parentalia), as well as the Celtic Samhain marking the transition between light and dark seasons. In the Pagan belief system, this change of seasons was thought to be a time when the physical world and the spirit world were close together and could actually come into contact, which gave people a chance to contact the spirits of their forebears but also meant they needed to light fires and create charms to ward off malevolent spirits. When Christianity became the dominant religion of Western Europe, a great effort was made to replace pagan festivals with Christian observances. Christmas, Easter and many other religious holidays were deliberately set at the same times of year as existing celebrations to ease the transition and increase acceptance of the new religion. In late Autumn, what we now call Halloween, the days involved with honouring ancestors were subsumed into the new festivals of All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd. The former was a day celebrating the lives of saints who did not have their own dedicated feast day, while the latter was a day of prayer for all departed Christians. A later English name for All Saints’ Day was All Hallows Day, which meant that 31st October, when the commemorations actually began, was All Hallows Eve (or E’en), which is where we get the modern word Halloween. Until the later Middle Ages, many Christians believed (and were taught by the clergy) that the souls of the departed would wander the earth until the prayers of the faithful sent them to heaven, and could harm anyone who had been at odds with them during their lives. So whether we look at it from a Christian or a pagan perspective, Halloween began as a time when people’s thoughts would turn to remembering the dead, and the desire to celebrate respected ancestors, while defending homes and lives against more harmful influences.
These origins are very much reflected in many of the modern-day Halloween activities too. Let’s start with the costumes. Both the pagan and Christian traditions involved elements of people donning costumes, and this was done for various reasons. On a community level, the Celtic festivals involved people dressing up as hideous creatures to either represent or discourage the spirits that were around at that time of year, while in Christian churches, it was common to perform plays about the lives of saints to a largely illiterate congregation. What both Christian and pagan traditions shared was that people would also want to disguise themselves on the day they were most vulnerable to wandering spirits, to confuse any that might wish them harm. Over time, costumes evolved to become anything that people see as frightening or potentially harmful, such as witches, the devil, vampires or monsters from more modern literature and film.
If Halloween has a universal symbol, it is surely the pumpkin. The use of something that came originally from North America reflects the fact that the modern form of Halloween largely came from the USA too. The All Hallows festival was very popular among Christian communities in the early days of colonisation and, when merged with Celtic traditions that persisted among the many later Irish and Scottish immigrants, helped to shape the modern-day festivities. But while pumpkins themelves originate in the Americas, carving out vegetables to have hideous faces and hold candles has been around since pagan times. In fact, the traditional lights carried by costumed people involved in early Halloween rituals to help ward off evil spirits were exactly that, usually turnips in fact. These lights became known in England as “jack o’lanterns”. When America was settled, people simply substituted a locally grown vegetable, and the Halloween pumpkin as we know it today was born! Around 99% of all pumpkins grown are used for carving into lanterns rather than for eating.
Trick or treating is probably the other most famous Halloween tradition. It usually involves children in costume knocking on doors in their neighbourhood asking people “Trick or treat” – the idea originally being that if you did not give them a small gift, they would play some kind of trick on the householder instead. These days, the choice element seems to have been pretty much eliminated and the expectation is that people will give treats, usually in the form of sweets. Like other aspects of modern Halloween, trick or treat has a definite basis in the history of Christian and pagan festivals. Firstly, we have the tradition of leaving an offering of food and drink for the spirits of our ancestors who are “visiting” at this time of year. This is an important part of the Mexican Day of The Dead festival, which has close ties to Halloween, and to French Christian traditions involving taking food to the graves of relatives on All Hallows’ Eve. In centuries gone by, people would also leave small food offerings outside their houses to pacify any less benevolent spirits and prevent them coming inside. Trick or treating also appears to be linked to an old Christian tradition associated with this festival called “souling”. This involved people (especially children) from poorer families going to the houses of wealthier members of the community asking for food, especially cakes (which became known as soul cakes), in return for them praying for the souls of the person’s family. However, the practice also has strong connections to a later tradition, especially common in Northern England, called Mischief Night. Although this usually happened on 4th November, it was all about children dressing up in costumes, especially witches and monsters, and playing tricks on their neighbours, which could sometimes be averted by giving them coins, cakes or the like. It appears that at some stage, this might have become part of the slightly earlier All Hallows festival and mingled with the other traditions to create trick or treating in its modern form.
There are various other Halloween traditions that can also be traced back to the Roman harvest of Pomona (the goddess whose name gives us the French word for apple – “pomme”), such as apple bobbing (attempting to grab apples floating in a tub of water using only the teeth), or the belief that if a young woman put an apple under her pillow on this night, she would dream of her future husband.
It is clear that almost every aspect of Halloween as we know it today has its roots in a variety of festivals, practices and beliefs from many centuries ago – Celtic, Roman and Christian influences are very much in evidence in the modern festival. These days, it’s essentially a fun night especially for children, a chance to dress in outlandish costumes, play games and enjoy treats. But whatever you are doing this Halloween – taking the kids trick or treating in your neighbourhood, hosting a party, dressing up as a Disney witch, or telling ghost stories to try and scare your friends and family – it’s worth remembering that the original festivals, pagan and Christian, shared one important feature: at heart they were about remembering people whose lives shaped our world and ourselves, and protecting our families and communities from harm. Happy Halloween!