Halloween: A Brief History

Everybody knows that Halloween falls on the 31st of October every year… but not everyone knows how the modern traditions surrounding the spooky day came about. Historians believe that Halloween’s prequel came in the form of the Celtic festival Samhain. 

During this festival, Celts would light bonfires and wear frightening costumes to ward off spirits. The festival marked the end of the Harvest season and led to the beginning of winter. Nowadays it is held on November 1, but festivities begin on the 31st of October. Sometimes people would light torches and from the bonfire and carry it into their homes. Although not all divination involved fire, the bonfire was used to try and read the future, as were several games played on the day of the festival. 

Apples and hazelnuts were used by the Celts to divine the future, and so were frequently used in the games. A common game played was apple bobbing, a tradition that has lasted until today. Another game involved hanging a wooden rod from the ceiling, with an apple hanging from one end and a lit candle on the other. The rod was spun round, and everyone took it in turns to catch the apple with their teeth. When the apple was peeled, it was done so in one long strip, and the peel was then tossed over the persons shoulder. It was believed that the apple peel would fall into the shape of the first letter of the persons’ future spouses name. 

Samhain was seen as an important time of year – it marked the point at which the boundary between this world and the ‘Otherworld’ was significant weakened. This meant that ghosts could more easily cross into our world, hence the bonfires and the dressing up. 

Mumming and Guising was also an integral part of Samhain from the sixteenth century onwards, and describes people going from house to house in costume, and reciting songs in exchange for food. The practice can now be seen as a version of trick or treating. Some believe that the tradition stemmed from people impersonating the souls of the dead, and asking for offerings on their behalf. By impersonating a spirit, one believed that they also were protected from them. Trick or treating also may have come from the tradition of going to peoples house to collect food for Samhain feasts, or fuel for bonfires. 

Whereas nowadays pumpkins are more popular, for the Celts, turnips were the chosen vegetable that was hollowed out and used to ward off evil spirits. Jack-o’-lanterns were popular in Ireland and Scotland before they spread throughout England. 

Let’s jump back a bit further. The Romans conquered the Celts in 43 AD, and it appears that some Roman traditions may have become combined with the celebration of Samhain. One was Feralia, a day in late October in which the Romas commemorated the dead. The second festival honoured Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol is the apple, which made frequent appearances at Samhain in the form of apple bobbing. 

The plot thickens. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III stated that All Saints Day should be held on November 1st. This day commemorated saints and martyrs throughout Christian history. This day falls on the day after Samhain, but overtime the two festivals became incorporated. All Souls’ Day follows, on November 2nd. This day remembers the dead, especially those that lounge in purgatory. All Souls’ Day was also celebrated in a similar fashion to Samhain. All Souls’ Day is also known as All Hallows Eve, which later became Halloween. Together, these days form the observance of Allhallowtide, a collection of days that remembers the departed. The three days blur together into this period of observance, with Halloween falling on All Saints’ Eve.

Allhallowtide is a Christian idea, not a Celtic one, however. So how did this work, I hear you ask. Well, It is believed that the Christians Christianised the Celtic observance of Samhain in order to reform them, and encourage their conversion. However, this is subject to some debate. So to make things clear, the time of Allhallowtide encompassed the three days of All Saints Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. 

Halloween is known for being popular in America, and although in New England the practice was condemned by Puritans, its popularity picked up after with the influx of various ethnic groups brought new ideas about the festival to America. Celebrations included parties, and events to celebrate the harvest, and neighbours would come together to hold street parties. New immigrants that came to America in the second half of the 19th century also helped to bolster Halloween’s popularity. Now, Halloween is America’s largest commercial holiday after Christmas. 

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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