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Halloween: Origins and Traditions

Halloween: Origins and Traditions


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Halloween evolved from the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain. Over the centuries, Halloween transitioned from a pagan ritual to a day of parties, costumes, jack-o-lanterns and trick-or-treating for kids and adults.


Allerheiligentag (All Saints’ Day) in Germany

Halloween is when all demons and witches are out for the night hunting, and when there are pumpkins glaring out of the windows, and when it’s better to give a treat instead of being tricked…

Halloween is celebrated each year on October 31. It had its beginnings in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead. The Celtic peoples, who were once found all over Europe, divided the year by four major holidays. According to their calendar, the year began on a day corresponding to November 1st on our present calendar. The date marked the beginning of winter. All Hallows’ Even, later shortened to Halloween, was observed on the evening of October 31st.

Halloween is for the Celtic peoples (Scotch, Irish, and part of the English) the eve of the festival of Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween), Lord of the dead. The Celtic year ended on October 31, the eve of Samhain, and was celebrated with both religious and agrarian rites. For the Druids, Samhain was both the “end of summer” and a festival of the dead. It was the period for threshing and food preparation for the winter season. People believed that on this day the spirits of the departed visited their kinsmen in search of warmth and cheering as winter approached.

It was the biggest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year. The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld. People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables. They also lit bonfires in honor of the dead, to aid them on their journey, and to keep them away from the living. On that day all kinds of beings were present: ghosts, fairies, and demons – all of them part of the dark and dread.

The Christian Church tried to wipe out “pagan” holidays, such as Samhain, through its missionaries. The Druid festival of Samhain was meant to be replaced forever with Hallowmas, or All Saints’ Day, on November 1. This did not happen, but the status of the traditional Celtic deities diminished substantially. The Christian feast of All Saints was established to honor all saints, known and unknown. Thus, the festival of the pagan lord of the dead became the festival of the Christian dead, in memory of early Christians who died for their beliefs and to honor all those who died in the faith.

Anyway, All Saints Day, otherwise known as All Hallows (hallowed means sanctified or holy), continued the ancient Celtic traditions. The evening prior to the day was the time of the most intense activity, both human and supernatural. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought to be evil. People continued to please those spirits by setting out gifts of food and drink. Subsequently, All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening, which became Hallowe’en.


Ah, Halloween! The nip in the air, the fragrance of wood-smoke on the breeze, the hordes of little ghosties and ghoulies stomping around the neighborhood -- it all comes together to lift my spirits and make me optimistic about the seasons to come. You see, that's been the intent of Halloween all along, despite its modern characteristics. The history of Halloween began, in ages past, as a simple harvest holiday: a celebration of a bountiful year, and a hope that the year yet born would be at least as productive as the one past.

Though few people realize it as they're slapping creepy holiday address labels onto their scary party invitations and carving jack-o'-lanterns to look like bats or witches, the Halloween we celebrate today is a curious combination of the old and the new. Its roots are ancient, beginning with traditions celebrated by the pre-Christian Celts who once inhabited the British Isles. The ancient Celts divided the year into two parts: Beltane, the growing season, and Samhain, which literally means "summer's end." Samhain (pronounced "Sow-en") was a time for celebration, a final feast in defiance of winter's hardships. Back then, it mostly involved eating a lot, cleaning the household, extinguishing the hearth fires and restarting them in a gesture of renewal, commemorating those who had passed away during the year, and dancing around a communal bonfire.

Many Wiccan groups still practice these types of celebration rituals today during Samhain festivals. And let's just dispel the grossly misunderstood notion that Wiccan's are evil. Quite the contrary! While many Wiccans do refer to themselves as "witches", they do NOT worship the Devil or any other evil deity for that matter. The vast majority of Wiccan practices can be characterized by or expressing goodwill or kindly feelings which they derive from nature oriented practices derived from pre-Christian religions. The Wiccan Rede (pronounced "reed") is a saying that was formulated to sum of the ethics of the Neo-Pagan religion Wicca. There are many variations of the Rede and one of the most common is, "An' it harm none, do what ye will". As you can see the Wiccan Rede is very similar to the Golden Rule, a belief found in nearly every religion – "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

The history of Halloween we know today is actually a Christian creation. It all started in the 800s, when the Catholic Church merged two existing Roman festivals called Feralia and Pomona's Day with Samhain, in a successful attempt to replace all three. Pomona's Day was originally a harvest festival in honor of the Roman goddess of fruits and trees this may explain the tradition of bobbing for apples. Feralia was a day for mourning and remembering the dead.

Christians began celebrating All Saints Day on November 1, with observances beginning at sunset the night before. Among other things, people dressed in costumes as Christian saints to scare away evil spirits, and then went door-to-door, begging for food. Sound familiar? Later on All Soul's Day (a holiday commemorating the dead who were not saints) was added to the mix on November 2. Celebrants took to going from house to house asking for little soul cakes (currant buns) in exchange for praying for the souls of a household's dead.

By 1500 AD, All Saints and All Soul's Days had evolved into Hallow Time (October 31-November 2), with most of the celebrations occurring the night before All Hallows Day -- All Hallows Eve. It wasn't long before "All Hallows Eve" evolved into "Hallowe'en."

Now fast forward to today and the celebrations many of us participate in. Adults have Halloween parties and purchase bloody decorations and other creepy "toys" to try and scare their guests with. Grown up parties usually involve eating and drinking – and of course dancing with or without the traditional bon fire.

Traditional kiddie Halloween parties include comic-scary decorations, spook houses and candy galore. You can get the cutest Halloween party invitations with matching return address labels. Trick-or-treating, dressing in costumes, honoring the dead and celebrating the good that's come to you during the year all these are living, breathing traditions that tie us to ancestors who lived hundreds and thousands of years ago. Underneath all our fun traditions, the history of Halloween remains what it always was: a celebration of a year drawing to a close, and a joyous laugh in the face of the winter to come.


10 things you didn’t know about the history (and mystery) of Halloween

What is the history of Halloween and when was it first celebrated? Why do we trick or treat? Why do we carve pumpkins? Here, Dr David Clarke from Sheffield Hallam University, an expert on British folklore, brings you the facts.

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Published: October 12, 2020 at 1:05 pm

Every year Halloween provokes controversy and divides opinions: most people see it as just as a bit of harmless fun, while others say it marks an ancient pagan festival – and some evangelical Christians claim it is a celebration of dangerous occult forces. So what are the facts? Here, Dr David Clarke from Sheffield Hallam University – an expert on British folklore – investigates the origins of Halloween and its traditions…

A religious festival?

Most people believe 31 October is an ancient pagan festival associated with the supernatural. In fact, it has religious connotations – although there is disagreement among historians about when it began. Some say Hallowtide was introduced as All Saints’ Day in the 7th century AD by Pope Boniface IV, while others maintain it was created in the 9th century AD by Christians to commemorate their martyrs and saints.

In medieval Britain, ‘Halloween’ was the eve of the Catholic festival All Saints or All-Hallows (from Old English ‘Holy Man’) on 1 November, and was followed by the feast of All Souls on 2 November.

We didn’t always carve pumpkins

The tradition of carving a face on a turnip or swede (and more recently pumpkin), and using these as lanterns, seems to be a relatively modern tradition. On the last Thursday in October, children in the Somerset village of Hinton St George carry lanterns made of mangel-wurzles (a type of root vegetable). The light shines through a design etched on the skin. They are carried around the streets as the children chant: “It’s Punky Night tonight, It’s Punky Night tonight, Give us a candle, give us a light, It’s Punky Night tonight.”

We didn’t ‘trick or treat’ in England until the 1970s

Much of the modern supernatural lore surrounding Halloween was invented as recently as the 19th century. Scots and Irish settlers brought the custom of Mischief Night visiting to North America, where it became known as ‘trick or treat’. Until the revival of interest in Halloween during the 1970s, this American tradition was largely unknown in England. The importation of ‘trick or treat’ into parts of England during the 1980s was helped by scenes in American TV programmes and the 1982 film E.T.

Halloween wasn’t always about the supernatural

There is no evidence the pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated a festival on 1 November, but the Venerable Bede says the month was known as ‘Blod-monath’ (blood month), when surplus livestock were slaughtered and offered as sacrifices. The truth is there is no written evidence that 31 October was linked to the supernatural in England before the 19th century.

Nor was it always scary

The idea of Halloween as a festival of supernatural evil forces is an entirely modern invention. Urban legends about razor blades in apples and cyanide in sweets, hauntings by restless spirits and the use of 31 October as the date of evil or inauspicious events in horror films, reflect modern fears and terrors.

A festival of the dead?

In pre-Christian Ireland, 1 November was known as ‘Samhain’ (summer’s end). This date marked the onset of winter in Gaelic-speaking areas of Britain. It was also the end of the pastoral farming year, when cattle were slaughtered and tribal gatherings such as the Irish Feis of Tara were held. In the 19th century the anthropologist Sir James Frazer popularised the idea of Samhain as an ancient Celtic festival of the dead, when pagan religious ceremonies were held.

Prayers, not pumpkins

The Catholic tradition of offering prayers to the dead, the ringing of church bells and lighting of candles and torches on 1 November provides the link with the spirit world. In medieval times, prayers were said for souls trapped in purgatory on 1 November. This was believed to be a sort of ‘halfway house’ on the road to Heaven, and it was thought their ghosts could return to earth to ask relatives for assistance in the journey.

We used to go ‘souling’

Popular Halloween customs in England included ‘souling’, where groups of adults – and later children wearing costumes – visited big houses to sing and collect money and food. Souling was common in parts of Cheshire, Shropshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire on 1 and 2 November. In parts of northern England, special cakes were baked and left in churchyards as offerings to the dead.

Bonfires were lit on Halloween

Until the 19th century, bonfires were lit on Halloween in parts of northern England and Derbyshire. Some folklorists believe the enduring popularity of Guy Fawkes bonfires on 5 November may be a memory of an older fire festival, but there is a lack of written evidence for these in England before the late 17th century.

Halloween was once romantic

Love divinations on Halloween spread to England from Scotland as a result of the popularity of Robert Burn’s poem Halloween in Victorian times. One love divination mentioned by Burns includes placing hazelnuts in the fire, naming one for yourself and the other for your partner. If they burned gently and then went out, this indicated a long and harmonious life together if they coughed and spluttered or exploded, this was a sign of problems ahead.

Apples were also used for divination purposes: the skin was thrown over the shoulder, or the fruit floated in water or hung upon strings, to be seized by the teeth of the players.

Dr David Clarke is a senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University. He holds a PhD in English cultural tradition and folklore, and a degree in archaeology, prehistory and medieval history.

This article was first published by HistoryExtra in October 2014


The Evolution of Halloween: From Samhain to Trick-or-Treat and Beyond

Here we go let’s hit the highlights of said evolution. First, we have the pre-first-century festival of Samhain, the source for so many of our continued spooky traditions. Then, during the first century, the Romans conquered the Celts, consequently merging the Celtic Samhain with the Roman festivals of Feralia (honoring the dead) and another that celebrated Pomona, the goddess of fruit. The latter celebration may be the genesis of the spooky-season classic of bobbing for apples.

All Martyrs&apos Day was celebrated during the Middle Ages.


About Halloween

Halloween is a traditional celebration held on October 31st. Today, Halloween is an excuse for Halloween theme costume parties, and entertainment with horror films, haunted houses and other activities around the popular themes of ghosts, witches, Dracula, werewolves and the supernatural. Children love to dress up in halloween costumes and go from door-to-door in their neighborhood following the old tradition of trick-or-treating, collecting sweets and gifts, sometimes money.

Halloween began as an ancient Celtic festival in Great Britain and Ireland, and has survived most strongly among Irish, Scottish and Welsh communities. Immigrants from these communities carried the tradition to North America where it has gained in popularity. In turn, as part of American pop culture, Halloween has spread in popularity to most corners of the English speaking western world, and increasingly into Western Europe in recent times.

Originally Halloween was a pagan festival, around the idea of linking the living with the dead, when contact became possible between the spirits and the physical world, and magical things were more likely to happen. Like most pagan festivals, long ago it was absorbed into the festivals of the expanding Christian church, and became associated with All Hallows Day, or All Saints Day, which eventually fell on November 1 under the Gregorian calendar. A vigil for the festival was held on All Hallows Evening on October 31. In the vernacular of the times, All Hallows Evening became Hallowe'en and later the Halloween we know today.

The celebration of Halloween survived most strongly in Ireland. It was an end of summer festival, and was often celebrated in each community with a bonfire to ward off the evil spirits. Children would go from door to door in disguise as creatures from the underworld to collect treats, mainly fruit, nuts and the like for the festivities. These were used for playing traditional games like eating an apple on a string or bobbing for apples and other gifts in a basin of water, without using your hands. Salt might be sprinkled on the visiting children to ward off evil spirits. Carving turnips as ghoulish faces to hold candles became a popular part of the festival, which has been adapted to carving pumpkins in America.

Halloween is usually celebrated by both adults and kids. Some families celebrate by having costume parties and playing special games like bobbing for apples and telling ghost stories. Sometimes children go "trick or treating" - knocking on doors in their trusted neighborhoods collecting candy. Other times they may attend a community party instead. Parents should use common sense when supervising their child's Halloween activities.

In earlier years, Halloween was a time for playing harmless pranks. However, in more recent times, Halloween pranks have sometimes gotten out of hand - causing damage and injury to others.

Schools usually prefer to celebrate Halloween by having children dress as storybook characters. In this way, children are still allowed to "dress up, " and the holiday becomes both fun and educational.


Origins of Halloween Traditions

Why does Halloween make us think of trick-or-treating, witches on broomsticks, bobbing for apples, and carved pumpkins? Why are carved pumpkins called Jack-O’-Lanterns? Here’s a look back at the origins of Halloween traditions and why we celebrate Halloween the way we do today.

Why Is It Called “Halloween”?

As with many holidays, Halloween is rooted in our agricultural past, marking the end of harvesttime and the beginning of the new year.

The origin of Halloween and many of its customs can be traced to Samhain, an ancient pagan Celtic festival that is Gaelic for “summer’s end,” a day to bid good-bye to warmth and light. It marks the end of the harvest season and the start of winter (the darker “half” of the year).

The ancient Celts believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest during Samhain, thereby making it the ideal time to communicate with the deceased and to divine the future.

After the Roman Empire took over Celt-occupied lands in the 1st century A.D., the Romans combined many of the Celtic traditions, including Samhain, with their own. This day evolved into All Hallows’ Day or Allhallowmas, “hallow” meaning “to sanctify.”

Years later, the Roman Catholic Church designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, in honor of all Catholic saints. It was celebrated with a mass, bonfires, and people costumed as angels and saints parading through the villages. November 2 brings All Souls’ Day, a holy day set aside for honoring the dead and departed.

Just as November 1 was once called All Hallows’ Day, October 31 was called All Hallows’ Eve. Over time, All Hallows’ Eve was shortened to Halloween!

Witches on Broomsticks

Why are witches a common costume on Halloween? In the Middle Ages, women labeled as witches (from the Anglo-Saxon word wicce, or “wise one”) practiced divination. Such a woman would curl up near a fireplace and go into a trancelike state by chanting, meditating, or using hallucinogenic herbs. Superstitious people believed that these women flew out of their chimneys on broomsticks and terrorized the countryside with their magical deeds.

Bobbing for Apples

Have you ever bobbed for apples? The Roman festival for Pomona, the goddess of fruit and orchards, was celebrated around November 1. Romans believed that the first person to catch a bobbing apple with his or her teeth would be the first to marry in the new year.

They also believed that apple peels held the secret to true love. The lovelorn would peel an apple in one long, unbroken piece and throw it over his or her shoulder while being spun around. The shape of the peel on the ground represented the first initial of the peeler’s true love.

Why We Carve Pumpkins:

Turnip lanterns were used before the modern pumpkin jack-o’-lantern! In ancient Ireland, revelers would hollow out large turnips (or potatoes or beets) and carve them into a demon’s face to frighten away spirits. They would light the turnips from within with a candle or a piece of smoldering coal.

They then placed the lanterns in the windows and doorways of their homes, in the belief that the carvings would scare off evil spirits and welcome deceased loved ones inside. Irish immigrants arriving in the New World during the early 1800s found the plentiful, easier-to-carve pumpkins ready substitutes for turnips.

See our fun video about the history of pumpkin carving. But if you’d like to carve some creepy turnips, try it the old-fashioned way!


We never thought root vegetables could be this frightening!

What is the Origin of Jack-o’-Lanterns?

The term “Jack-o’-lantern” originated in 17th-century Britain, where it was used to refer to a man with a lantern or to a night watchman. The British would call men whose names they didn’t know by a common name like Jack. Thus, an unknown man carrying a lantern was sometimes called “Jack with the lantern” or “Jack of the lantern.”

According to one theory, the term “Jack-o’-lantern” originated from Irish folklore. As the story goes, a man called Stingy Jack invited the devil out for drinks and asked him to play a parlor game to see if the devil could turn himself into a coin so that they could pay for the drinks. After the devil obliged, Jack ran off with the coin and devil was trapped inside it. Jack freed the devil based on the deal that he would not claim Jack’s soul when he died. Jack also played another trick on the devil to extend his life.

When Jack finally died, God wouldn’t allow him into heaven and the devil wouldn’t allow him into hell. Instead, Jack O’L antern aimlessly roams the earth for eternity with a lantern carved from a turnip to light his way. Whether this theory about the origin of the term “Jack-o’-lantern” is proven or not, it’s become a popular and not-too-scary ghost story today.

Some believe that the Jack-o-Lanterns represent Christian souls in purgatory. On All Saints’ Day (November 1) Roman Catholics visit tombstones to honor the memory of deceased relatives and on All Souls’ Day (November 2), Catholics pray for those souls believed to be in purgatory because they died with the guilt of lesser sins on their souls. Stingy Jack is believed to be roaming endlessly in a sort of purgatory, so it’s not difficult to see the connection.

Why Do We Wear Scary Costumes?

During Samhain, superstitious country folk would disguise themselves with animal skins and masks made from sailcloth or linen. In costume, they would go outdoors and make lots of noise, in an effort to fool troublesome spirits into thinking that they were one of them or to scare them away.

See how to make easy Halloween makeup using only items from your pantry!

Why Do We Trick-or-Treat?

An extra place was set at the table during Samhain to serve as an offering to deceased loved ones. In addition, food was placed outside, near the doorway, to appease bothersome spirits who might otherwise play a trick on the inhabitants, such as tipping over containers of milk.

Today’s trick-or-treating dates to the Middle Ages, when poor people collected baked goods called “soul cakes” from the wealthy. In exchange for cakes, the poor promised to pray for the giver’s deceased loved ones.


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