Join me as I peer through the mists of time to uncover the origins of All Hallows’ Eve…
Halloween is a huge festival in the Anglosphere, but have you ever wondered … well, why? Why should one night in late October be dedicated to ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night? Why, on such a night, should kids dress up as vampires and witches and go traipsing around their neighbourhoods asking for sweets, and when exactly did October 31st become associated with all things ghastly anyway?
Well, if you fit into this category – and we must be talking about literally tens of people here – wonder no more! Halloween has a long and colourful history indeed, and its origins are darker and more mysterious than its modern, family-friendly version would appear to suggest.
Samhain, The Time Between Worlds
The general consensus seems to be that Halloween originally derives from the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced, for inexplicable reasons, as Sow-in). The Celtic New Year began on November 1st, a day which drew a definitive line beneath the summer and harvest and ushered in the winter. A long, hard winter, of course – especially in the past – would mean death for a great many people, and so it isn’t altogether surprising that Samhain was associated with the otherworld. This was a liminal time, when the boundary that separated this world from the next was thin, and when the spirits of the dead could return to earth. It was a magical time, but also a dangerous one.
If you ventured out and about on Samhain night, for example, it was recommended that you wear masks and disguises, the idea being that any passing spirits would mistake you for one of their own and – hopefully – decide not to trouble you. It was also customary to leave gifts of food and wine for any passing spirits. It isn’t hard to see these two beliefs as forming the basis for the modern custom of trick-or-treating.
Two Roman traditions might also have been incorporated into Samhain: Feralia, when the Romans honoured the dead, and the day sacred to Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. The apple was sacred to Pomona, which may explain why apples – especially in the form of the game bobbing for apples – are associated with Halloween today.
All Hallows’ Eve: Saints and Souls
Later, and with the spread of Christianity, November 1st became All Saints’ Day, while All Souls’ Day was celebrated on November 2nd. All Souls’ Day was marked by bonfires and dressing up, and was also a time to remember and pray for the souls of the dead. (To this day in Italy, and elsewhere, people visit the graves of their dead relatives at around this time.) All Saints’ Day, meanwhile, was also known as All Hallows’ Day, and so the night before was known as All Hallows’ Eve, and – in time – Halloween (or Hallowe’en, if you prefer the traditional spelling).
The modern tradition of trick-or-treating probably owes much to the old customs of “souling” and “guising”. On All Souls’ Day the needy would beg for assistance from their wealthier neighbours and, in return for “Soul Cakes”, would pray for the family’s lost loved ones. Guising, on the other hand, appears to have been a more raucous affair, which involved young people dressing up and going from house to house reciting poetry or singing songs in return for money or food.
Halloween, however, was not just about ghosts and the other side. It was also an opportunity to influence the fate of the living, especially with regard to matters of the heart. It was customary for young women to try to identify their future husband on Halloween night. One method of doing so was apparently to peel an apple in one long strip and throw it over your shoulder, in the hope that it would spell out one’s future husband’s initials. (Presumably this technique was a little more useful in the days when a person’s pool of potential spouses was rather more limited than it is today.) No death without life, and no life without sex … it all makes sense, I suppose, in a way.
Across the Atlantic … and Back Again
Had things been otherwise, Halloween might have remained an eccentric, little-known thing peculiar to the British Isles, like cheese-rolling or Up Helly Aa. However, it was with the arrival of immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England in America that Halloween as we know it began to take shape. Halloween celebrations began to involve parties, singing, dancing, and telling stories. Guising was replaced by trick-or-treating, and the Jack-o’-lantern – hitherto a crudely-carved turnip or mangel wurzel – became associated with the rather more impressive pumpkin.
It’s fashionable in Britain today, at least in some circles, to dismiss Halloween as an odd American import. Nothing could be further from the truth: while the festival in its current form owes much to American innovation, it is in essence a Celtic celebration. And, at its heart, it takes us back to a long-ago time when the dead really were believed to walk the earth, and when the onset of winter was an occasion of almost supernatural dread…