The celebration now known as Halloween originates from the Celtic festival, Samhain. First mentioned in Irish literature from the 10th Century, November 1st was a very significant date to the Gaels, marking the end of their harvest season (and year) and the beginning of winter. When translated, Samhain means “The end of Summer” and was a time when debts would be settled, the dead would be buried and the preparations for winter completed.
On October 31st, the night before their new year, it was believed that “a new year was being stitched to the old”. During this time, the veil between the present world and the next was believed to be at its weakest, allowing for spirits to roam freely between the two. From this belief, October 31st became a highly superstitious night whereby townsfolk dressed as spirits and would attempt to guide wandering ghosts back to their resting places.
At this time, each villager would let their hearth fires die before relighting them from embers of the village bonfire, kindled by the priests. This symbolised hope and prosperity upon entry into the new year. During the blackout, lanterns would be carved from turnips and beets, with pumpkins being used later during the 17th century as they were brought to Europe from the New World.
The illuminated pumpkins were thought to chase away evil spirits who wandered the night whilst also welcoming friendly spirits home. During this later period, rules were lifted, and mischief ensued with many pranks being played. Gates would often be unhinged, cows found in far off fields and servants would rule their masters.
When the Romans conquered Britain in AD 43, they brought their own belief system including Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees whose symbol was an apple. The Romans chose to incorporate Pomona to the pre-existing holiday, forever linking Halloween to apples and perhaps explaining the tradition of ‘bobbing’ for apples! The invasion also saw the adoption of the Julian Calendar which moved New Year’s Day to January 1st. For some, the entire period between the old new year (October 31st) and January 1st became a time when ghosts were free to wander the earth.
During the 7th-10th centuries, the church decided to abolish pagan holidays and replace them with festivals of Christian significance. Pope Gregory moved All Saints Day to November 1st and with the influence of the Catholic Church, the day soon became widely celebrated across Europe and then the Americas. It became a time for celebrating the memory of the dead, whose souls were still in purgatory. Beggars would knock on doors singing and make prayers in return for “soul cakes”. The new name, Halloween came from this Christian festival. As a night of Vigil, the 31st was a “Hallowed Evening”, shortened to Hallowe’en and then Halloween.
In 1653, Oliver Cromwell abolished Halloween. He also sought to eradicate witches and even cats, of which were seen as their familiars. In Scotland and Ireland however, the holiday was alive and well, well into the Georgian times with much of its superstitious symbolism intact. The extended Regency era is known for its horror and gothic romances such as Frankenstein (1816) however Halloween was largely ignored, instead, the English celebrated Guy Fawkes night. Halloween was then brought to the United States via mass Irish migration, caused by the potato famine in the 1840’s.
In 1915, the popularity of Halloween had increased so much that The Boy Scouts of America sought to control mischief on the streets by scheduling the first “Trick or Treat” event. The misconception that Halloween came from the United States is understandable given that its popularity has only multiplied since its arrival there. It is, however, clear to see that the ancient Irish customs of carving pumpkins and wearing costumes remains to this day!
Halloween is now embraced across all nations, with each year passing giving rise to more elaborate costumes and celebrations!