We all know that the 31st of October is for dressing up as witches and ghosts and eating far too many sweets, right? But why do we celebrate Halloween? Where did it all begin and how did it evolve into the trick or treating, pumpkin-carving night we now know?
Halloween as we know it, didn’t just evolve from one particular celebration. The best way to understand how it came to be, is to look at the various traditions that make up our favourite orange-themed, fright night. You might just be surprised by some of their origins!
*Disclaimer: Now, before anyone goes getting upset, I AM NOT a historian, nor am I any kind of religious expert. The information in this post is based on personal research and word-of-mouth stories and as such, is likely to not be 100% fact (shocker, I know!) It was written for entertainment purposes, so please enjoy it as such!
All Hallows Eve and Trick or Treating
For hundreds of years Pagan Celtics and Roman festivals merged to cement the end of October as a celebration of the dead and of the turning of the seasons. By the 9th century, the Catholic Church had begun turning Pagan festivals into celebrations of their own, as part of a movement to convert them to Catholicism. All Saints day was moved from May to November 1st to coincide and named ‘Alholwmesse’ in middle English, or ‘All Hallows’. As time went on, the night before – 31st October – became ‘All hallows eve’ and then later, Halloween.
As the two celebrations merged, the poorest citizens would go door to door begging. They offered prayers for the inhabitant’s dead relatives, and in return were given pastries called ‘Soul cakes’. The tradition became known as ‘going-a-souling’. Sounding familiar yet?
Irish Folklore says that a drunk farmer called Jack made a deal with the devil that got him into so much trouble, he was not welcomed into either Hell or Heaven when he died. Using a turnip from his farm and a lump of burning coal, chucked to him from the gates of hell, he created a lantern. This gave him light to forever wander the earth, incapable of moving on.
Every year, during ‘Samhain’ – ‘summers end’ in Gaelic – the Irish would carve turnips. The lanterns would be left out in an attempt to scare Jack away. The villagers would often dress in animal skins to disguise themselves from the devil and other evil spirits. During the potato famine in Ireland in the 1800’s, many Irish moved to North America. In time, they adapted their traditions to their new land and with a shortage of turnips, turned to carving pumpkins instead!
The Pagan goddess, ‘The Crone’ is depicted as a witch-like woman with a cauldron or cooking pot. She was seen as the ‘Earth mother’ and the cauldron represented her womb. It was said that she continued to stir it to allow spirits in and out as they were born or died. Could this be where we got our hook nosed, pointy-hat-wearing witches from? Today, many Pagans worship the Maiden, mother and the crone (daughter, mother, grandmother). The crone is depicted as the wisest, without fear of death and walking along the veil between worlds.
Bats and cats
Bats and Cats have long been believed to be the familiars of Witches. Add to that the connection between bats and Vampires, and it’s no wonder they feature so heavily in our modern-day Halloween celebrations! The Vampire Bat has been around for about 50 million years and some of the earliest vampire stories come from ancient Greece! So it seems Dracula wasn’t the first blood-sucker after all!
Black and Orange
Pagan Celtics celebrated Samhain or ‘Summers end’ every year. As the trees turned from green to orange and the weather grew darker and colder, they commemorated the dead. It was considered the darkest time of the year as they entered winter and is probably why the atmosphere made them believe the veil between worlds was at its thinnest. They celebrated with bonfires and burning the old crops as offerings to their gods to protect them in the darker months. The oranges found in nature at this time and the black of death and winter has followed through into the present day Halloween decor.
Apples seem to be quite prominent in many religions, including those of the Celtics and the Romans. They bobbed for apples in the Autumn as a way for the women to predict who would marry first. They would then peel the apple in one and throw the curled skin over their shoulders. It was said that it would spell out the initial of their future husband. Others may have slept with the apple under their pillows in the hope they would dream of their true love.
During Samhain, the Pagan Celts invited the souls of their dead relatives to visit. Some even laying an extra place at their tables. Of course, if they could get through, then so could the more evil spirits! One of the ways they may have warded them off, was to dress in frightening costumes of animal skins as a way to disguise their human selves.
So, the next time you hear someone say that Halloween is an American holiday for kids, just to make money, you can tell them why it hasn’t always been that way! (and why it isn’t just for kids!) Halloween is the result of thousands of years of superstition, religious beliefs, seasonal celebrations and traditions. Whether trying to Devine the future, speak to a loved one from beyond the grave, or ensure their family’s and livestock’s safety during winter. The 31st October – 1st of November has been a mystical time of year for many. From the first pagan farmers in Ireland, to the tiny trick-or-treaters of today.