Halloween is a holiday that really tends to divide people. It’s a bit like Marmite, either you love it or you hate it. Some get the kids involved with carving pumpkins or dressing up, while others hide away in their home and don’t answer the door to trick or treaters. For some of us at least, it’s become second nature to decorate the house with spider’s webs and skeletons and celebrate all things spooky, but where did this strange tradition come from?
Most people would probably assume that the holiday has its roots in America, as they go all out for Halloween, and arguably commercialised the holiday (as we know it today) in England. Costumes, scary movies, apple bobbing, trick or treating, and much more. You’ll often hear the older, grumpier, members of English society complaining that Americans were the ones who spread this annoying and over the top celebration of all things ghostly. But, Halloween actually stems from the British Isles, and was born from Celtic-European traditions.
Some Historians believe Halloween can be traced all the way back to a Pagan festival which was celebrated by the Celts in the Iron Age, though this is disputed by some. This was called Samhain, and was a 3 day festival which began on the 31st October, marking the end of summer. The purpose of the festival was to honour the Lord of the Dead, and the Celts believed that during this time the shroud between the living and the dead was lifted somewhat, allowing the dead to mingle with the living. Additionally, the holiday celebrated an abundance of food after the Harvest, which is perhaps where the custom of apple bobbing comes from.
Samhain was marked by bonfires, feasts, and a celebration of all things otherworldly. At the feasts, the souls of the departed were invited to join in, and a place at the table would be laid for them. As well as this, gifts of food and drink were left for them, as it was believed that the dead were in search of warmth and comfort.
All Hallows Eve
When Christianity made its way to Britain the Christian people realised that the best way to persuade those in Britain to convert to Christianity was to combine the existing Pagan practices with their own Christian ones. It was convenient then, that the Christian Feast of All Saints was on November 1st, and the day after that was All Souls Day. So, October 31st became the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve, and Halloween was born. Since the dates of Samhain and All Souls Day were merged, the two have blended together to create Halloween as we know it today.
Trick or Treating
The Celtic celebration of Samhain often involved dressing up and going door-to-door reciting verses in exchange for food. By the 11th century, the church carried out a practice known as souling, whereby children would go door-to-door and ask for soul cakes in exchange for praying for the souls of friends and relatives. The costumes of this period were very different to those of today, children would dress as angels, demons, and saints. This practice evolved further in the 19th century, when souling turned into guising or mumming, when children would sing songs, recite verses and tell jokes in exchange for food. This is similar to modern day trick or treating, a phrase which was not used until 1927, when in America the tradition was introduced by Irish immigrants, and became the custom we know today. Halloween is a mixture of different traditions, and today gets an equally mixed reception, but it’s definitely still alive and here to stay!