The spooky history of Halloween

Published: Tuesday 31st October 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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Love it or hate it, today is Halloween. To celebrate, we took a closer look at how this popular holiday has taken shape over the centuries.

The word ‘Halloween’ actually derives from its Christian feast name ‘All Hallows’ Evening’. This is the time of the year that the church dedicated to remembering the dead, especially saints (also known as hallows) and martyrs.

The plethora of extravagant celebrations over in the States have led many to conclude that the spooky day has its origins in the U.S. But in fact many of the traditions are inspired by ancient Celtic culture and paganism. It is thought that some of the customs at this time of year date back to early harvest festivals, such as the Gaelic Samhain.

However, some argue that Halloween is quite separate from these feasts and has always been a Christian observance. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to pinpoint Halloween’s true origins, due to the Christianisation of pagan feast days. Similar to nowadays, it was quite common for people in the Middle Ages to honour the newly introduced Christian religious days, as well as acknowledge their pagan roots.

As expected, a lot of the fun activities we enjoy this time of year are tied closely to British folklore. For example, Jack-o’lanterns originate from an Irish myth and were initially carried by guisers (or as we would know them, trick or treaters), to ward off evil spirits.

The story goes that Jack, after a night of drinking, encounters the Devil and tricks him into climbing a nearby tree. The man etches a sign of the cross into the bark in order to trap the Devil. Satan then makes a deal with Jack, promising him he can never claim his soul. After a life of sin, Jack is refused entry to heaven, but he is also not allowed to enter the gates of hell, either. Satan throws a coal straight from the hellfires and Jack uses this to keep warm, placing it in a hollowed out turnip to stop it from blowing out. It is believed that Jack still wanders, looking for a place to finally rest.

You may be wondering where the pumpkin comes into it. Well, this is an Americanisation. The native vegetable is much easier to carve than a turnip and has been adopted over here too. The first carving of pumpkins was recorded in 1837, although it wasn’t exclusively a Halloween activity until the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

As for modern-day trick or treating, this has emerged out of several historic autumn pastimes. The medieval European practice of mumming is closely linked. This involved people wearing masks and parading the streets, entering houses to dance and play games.

Meanwhile, in England from the Middle Ages until the early twentieth-century, souling was widely practiced among both Protestants and Catholics. Souling entailed groups travelling from parish to parish, offering to pray for the souls of the wealthy in exchange for soul cakes, which are a combination of biscuit and scone.

Trick or treating is probably the most similar to guising. Children in costume would wear costumes and knock on their neighbours’ doors for food or coins. The idea of donning a scary costume on Halloween night began in Scotland and Ireland in the late nineteenth century and became favoured in the US during the early 1900s. You haven’t always been able to readily purchase a creepy outfit, however. The first mass-produced Halloween attire only came into stores in the 1930s.

Do you have a quirky Halloween tradition? Be sure to look up its roots, as you may be surprised by what you find.

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Published: Tuesday 31st October 2017 by Courtney Farrow

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