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The History of Halloween: Where do our traditions originate?

Written by Millie Braund

Design by Amelia Field

For decades, Halloween has been known as a fun and spooky holiday for kids to dress up and go trick-or-treating, and adults to party. Some may decorate their homes, carve pumpkins or watch scary movies, but where did these traditions originate?

Celtic Traditions

Halloween dates back thousands of years to the Celtic festival, Samhain. This celebration not only marked the end of the harvest season, but marked a day where people felt the separation between mortals and spirits to be the thinnest, and when humans could easily communicate with the dead. On this night, October 31st, they believed ghosts returned to Earth.

This is where a lot of our superstitions surrounding Halloween began, such as the black cat; Celts believed that people were cursed for their bad deeds to turn into cats by black magic.

People would celebrate this day by lighting bonfires to honour the dead and wearing costumes with masks to ward off evil spirits. This was one of the ways in which creatures such as fairies, goblins, witches and ghosts became associated with the holiday.

For friendly spirits, such as relatives and friends, people left spaces at their tables, treats outside their homes, and lit candles to help loved ones stop roaming Earth and return to the spirit world.

Christian Influence

A few centuries passed, and Christianity had gained a large following throughout Europe, and several popes worked to replace Celtic rites and traditions (such as Samhain).

Most notably, Pope Boniface IV and Pope Gregory III established ‘All Saints’ Day’ as November 1st in honour of all Christian martyrs and saints, seen as a way to replace the Celtic festival with a church-sanctioned celebration.

By 1000 A.D., the church had established November 2nd as ‘All Souls’ Day’, serving as a celebration to honour and pray for the dead. All Saints’ Day came to be known as ‘All Hallows’’, thus the evening before being branded ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ and, later, Halloween. The day initiates the celebration of ‘AllHallowTide’, a three day church holiday concluding with All Souls’ Day.

The beliefs and traditions of the Celts and those of Christianity merged. The church influenced the turning on witches from wise, medicinal and knowledgeable individuals to evil and devil-worshipping. Here the superstition and fear of witches and black cats grew, where people feared witches could turn into animals (‘familiars’) such as cats, bats and spiders.

Despite the Christian influence, All Souls’ Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, associating the time with the thin veil between life and death. People continued to light bonfires, throw parades, set out gifts of food and sweets for friendly spirits, and dress up to scare away the evil.

Popularisation in America

Fast forward and, with large amounts of immigration in the late 19th Century, the Halloween traditions spread across the world, becoming especially popular in America.

As European and Native American beliefs and customs combined, new superstitions and traditions arose, such as pumpkin carving, telling of fortunes and stories, and children mischief-making. This new type of Halloween became popular, originating mainly in America and spreading back to the UK.

Halloween has since become the largest commercial holiday following Christmas, with the UK spending around £420 million annually, and Americans spending $6 billion, with their more focussed decorating, and wide-spread trick-or-treating traditions.

So, where do our traditions come from? 

Trick-or-Treating:

It was largely America who populated this tradition, by borrowing from the previously mentioned European rituals of dressing up and leaving food outside of houses.

Halloween in America was strongly encouraged to turn away from the ‘frightening’ side of the celebration, that of spirits, pranks and witchcraft, to more friendly and community-driven events. Halloween parties and get-togethers became more popular as a way to celebrate the day, and so they lost most of the superstitions and rooted traditions by the 20th century.

The trick-or-treating tradition could originate from All Souls’ Day parades, where poorer individuals would beg for food and be given ‘soul cakes’ in return for their promise to pray for the giver’s passed loved ones. The practice, eventually named ‘going-a-souling’ was taken up by children who would visit houses and be given ale, food and money.

Dressing up also has clear roots to Celtic festivals where people would wear masks and costumes to ward off and not be noticed by the spirits crossing the thin veil on the night of ‘Halloween’.

Over the years, though, Halloween became commercialised, and a huge holiday for these sweet and costume businesses, with all traditions forgotten; in fact, a quarter of all candy sold in America is bought for Halloween.

Pumpkin Carving:

This tradition actually originated here in the UK, with the Irish tale of Stingy Jack.

The tale talks of a man named Jack who repeatedly tricked the Devil. One time includes asking the Devil to turn into a coin so he could buy a drink and, once the Devil did so, he put the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross where the Devil was stuck, unable to turn back to his original form.

Jack made multiple deals with the Devil by tricking him and capturing him. When Jack eventually died, he was denied passage to Heaven, and the Devil wouldn’t let him into Hell either, as he’d promised to never keep his soul.

Instead, Jack was cursed to roam the dark night with a piece of burning coal which he put into a carved-out turnip to act as a lantern. He’s said to have roamed Earth ever since, and the ghostly figure became known as Jack O’Lantern.

This is where the tradition originated, as people began to make their own ‘Jack O’Lanterns’. They would carve faces into vegetables such as potatoes, beets and turnips to ward away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits. Making vegetable lanterns stuffed with coal, wood or candles was also a British tradition to celebrate the end of the harvest festival.

When the Irish immigrated to America (home of the pumpkin), they brought their tradition with them, and it evolved to become a staple part of every Halloween.

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