To many people around the world, Halloween has become a gruesome and pumpkin-infested version of Christmas or Easter. There are lots of traditions, the origins of which have almost been lost in time, and the commercial component has become strong enough to mask many of the less child-friendly aspects of the holiday. So what are the origins of Halloween and where did all those pumpkins come in?
The first people we know that celebrated the time around Halloween as a special event were the ancient Celts. To the people who lived across the UK and France, the festival was Samhain and it was their new year. It was celebrated on November 1st and marked the transition from summer into winter along with the cold time of year that they associated with death. Their belief was that on the night before the New Year, the worlds of the dead and living blurred together and on October 31st, the dead were thought to walk the earth. These dead were known to cause trouble, destroying crops but were also key for the priests of the Celts, the Druids, to make accurate predictions about the future.
Celebrating Samhain involved building massive sacrificial bonfires where crops and animals were burnt to appease their gods. The Celts wore costumes that included animal heads and skins and telling each other’s fortune was a common pastime. After the celebration, they relit the fires in their homes that had been extinguished for the night and were ready for the harsh winter ahead.
Another tradition that still is seen today is the practise of wearing masks. The Celts believed that if you wore a mask, then the dead who were wandering the streets were less able to recognise you and were likely to think you were a fellow spirit. They would also place bowls of food outside their homes to prevent the ghosts from entering.
The Romans came along and took over Celtic territory and, as was their policy, used local customs with their own to help the natives feel more at home. With Samhain they combined two festivals – Feralia, late in October when the passing of the dead was celebrated and Pomona, honouring the goddess of fruit and trees whose symbol was the apple and may be the root behind the ‘bobbing of apple’ game we play today.
When Christianity spread to the Roman Empire, the feast of All Martyrs Day was established and later moved from May 13th to November 1st to blend in with older customs. By the turn of 1000AD, the feast had moved to November 2nd and was a day to honour the dead, believed by some as an effort by the church to supplant older traditions. All Souls Day was celebrated much in the same way as Samhain with big bonfires, parades and dressing up. The celebration was known as All-hallows or All-Hallowmas and the night before was known as All-hallows Eve – Halloween.
At this time, one of the roots of trick or treating was born in the form of ‘soul cakes’. Poor citizens would beg for food and families who were better off would give a pastry called soul cakes in return for them promising to pray for their dead relatives. Soul cakes were also left out for roaming spirits and children hunting for these cakes would be said to ‘go a-souling’.
The tradition of jack-o-lanterns that we see in pumpkins today came originally from the Scottish Highlands and Ireland in the 19th century. There a turnip or mangel wurzel was carved with a grotesque face to represent a spirit or goblin then lit with a candle and carried around during the festivities.
Crossing the Atlantic
The traditions associated with All Hallows Eve crossed the Atlantic with early colonists, though was more common in Maryland and the southern US colonies where the less rigid beliefs were held. Here the traditions began to blend with the Native American traditions and a new version of Halloween began to emerge. Part of it was celebrating the harvest with public ‘play’ parties where people would tell stories of the dead, tell fortunes and sing and dance. Ghost stories were commonly told and there was general mischief.
The tradition spread around the country more widely in the second half of the 19th century with the influx of Irish immigrants. They carried their own traditions and saw the practise of asking for food or money at neighbour’s doors, the forerunner of today’s trick or treat. The festival was also seen as a prime time for young women to divine the name of their husband-to-be using yarn, apple pairings or mirrors.
Parties were commonplace by the late 1800s with games, food and festive costumes. There was a general move to make the holiday about family and community get-togethers and the result saw much of the religious and superstitious elements wave. But the effort to keep the dead out of Halloween wasn’t successful long term.
Trick or treating came to the fore in the 1920-1950 period with the practise of giving a treat to stave off a trick coming from a time when vandalisms around the holiday had been rapidly rising.