What is the history behind Halloween?

Halloween is a favourite time of the year for many. With autumn in full swing, and the excuse to cosy up and watch horror movies with your favourite hot drink, what’s not to love? Or maybe you’re excited about dressing up and creating your own outfit or a fantastical or ghoulish make-up look! Whatever your reason for loving Halloween, most people aren’t experts on how or where the celebration first began.

As traditions become older, we often forget the histories and folklore behind these occasions. Today, we associate Halloween with trick or treating, spooky costumes, parties and pumpkin carving, but there is a long and complex religious history behind Halloween.

Pagan festival of Samhain

Halloween finds its origins in the time of the ancient Celtic pagans, with the popular festival of Samhain. Samhain was a 3-day fire festival that ran from 31st of October to 1st of November and celebrated birth and death, honouring those who had passed away recently.

The fire festival of Samhain translates to ‘summer’s end’ and was used to mark the transition from the light to dark half of the year. In Celtic tradition, people based their calendar on a ‘wheel of the year’ divided into two halves, light and dark. Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and welcomed the beginning of winter, aka the ‘dark half’ of the year. Many saw this transition period as a time where the boundary between our world and the other worlds thinned. This thinning was thought to create an atmosphere for spirits and fairies to come to this world more easily, hence some of the ‘spooky’ elements of Halloween.

During these times, Celtic fairies and spirits were both feared and respected. People left offerings of food, drink, and crops as a sacrifice to spirits in the hopes that they may find good luck to survive the long winter. Although many of the common Celtic traditions of this period have been lost, we do know that some traditions remain or have been adapted. People wore costumes such as animal disguises to hide from the evil spirits. They shared food and made lanterns from hollowed out turnips, which explains why we carve pumpkins on Halloween today.

‘All Hallows Day’ and Halloween’s Christian influence

As a result of the roman invasion, when most of Celtic land was conquered by Rome in 43 CE, Christianity and Catholicism took over across these regions. Many Celtic and Pagan traditions were removed or altered to fit into a Christian narrative, as a way of converting people to Christianity. Samhain was changed to All Hallows Day and this is why we know the celebration as ‘Halloween’ today. The word Halloween comes from ‘hallow’, meaning holy person or saint and ‘een’ is a contraction of eve. You may be familiar with the word ‘hallows’ from Harry Potter!

Although the Christian holiday of All Hallows Day already existed, the date was changed to match Samhain with the aim of promoting Christianity in previously pagan areas. All Hallows Day was intended as a time to celebrate Christian saints and martyrs, rather than celebrating Pagan gods and mischievous spirits during Samhain. Some pagan traditions continued such as tricks and pranks, but these pranks were attributed to the spirits of Christian saints rather than Pagan spirits. Halloween (as we know it today) evolved as a more secular version of All Hallows Eve, and eventually took over All Hallows Day.

Trick-or-treating and Pumpkin Carving

‘Souling,’ was a custom of baking and sharing soul cakes for all Christian souls. Groups of poor people, often children, would visit different homes, knocking on doors and collecting soul cakes in exchange for their prayers for the dead. After souling came ‘guising’, the act of young people dressing up in costume and going door-to-door, accepting food, wine or money in return for performances such as singing, reciting poetry or telling jokes. The medieval concepts of ‘souling’ and ‘guising’ inspired what we know as trick or treating.
The tradition of pumpkin carving on Halloween has its’ origins in England, Ireland and Scotland but people originally carved turnips. Traditionally, turnips were harvested at this time of year, so there were lots available in autumn. Turnips were a staple part of our ancestors’ winter diets and provided much needed nourishment and vitamins through the cold months where sickness and illness were common. 

People began carving ghastly faces into turnips, so they would resemble demons, ghosts or devils, then placed burning candles inside. The carved faces would glow through the pumpkin, serving as reminders of death and scaring nasty neighbours!  These lit-up turnips were known as ‘punkies’ and ‘Jack o’Lanterns’.

Halloween Today

Although there was a period when Halloween was less celebrated due to religious reasons, in 19th century UK and America, Irish and Scottish immigrants revived these traditions, laying the foundations for how we celebrate Halloween today. In keeping with traditions of mischief, children would dress up in costumes and be given money for reciting poems, singing songs or making jokes instead of giving prayers.

Halloween became a time when young boys and girls would misbehave, in Yorkshire it became known as ‘Mischief Night’. Children would dress up in disguises and costumes and knock on their neighbours’ doors, making spooky, ghostly noises and then running away. They would carry ghostly lanterns to add to the spook-factor when carrying out their pranks. Offering sweets and treats became a way to dissuade children from causing harm as they became more mischievous!

In the 20th century, the commercialisation of Halloween began. By the 1920s and 1930s, people would buy costumes and after the economic boom in the 1950s, sweets’ suppliers and the film industry increased the proliferation of Halloween as a mass market holiday. 1950s cinemas hosted horror movie marathons and TVs in the 60s ran spooky movies during the holiday, contributing to the growth of Halloween as a large money-making holiday.

How will you celebrate this year?

We may have lost some of the original traditions, but there is no denying that Halloween has grown into a holiday that’s widely known and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Whatever you plan on doing to celebrate Halloween this year – why not learn more about the spooky histories behind the holiday and what these changes can tell us about history more widely?

Have a spook-tacular Halloween!

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