Hallowe’en is one of the oldest celebrated occasions on the calendar. It dates back over 2000 years to a Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sah-win) which marked the end of the Celtic year. The word ‘Samhain’ actually means ‘Summer’s End’ in Gaelic. It was a celebration of the end of the harvest season and seen as a time to prepare for the coming harsh winter. The Celts worshipped pagan gods and it was believed that on 31st October the wall between the corporeal and spirit worlds would be at its very thinnest so the souls of the dead could return to wreak havoc on the living by damaging crops, stealing livestock and playing outrageous tricks.
It was usual for the normal order of things to be disregarded at this time so people would dress up in outlandish costumes and play mischievous pranks on each in addition to feasting in celebration of the dead. It was also thought that, during Samhain, the Druid priests could make predictions for the future. Their rituals would usually involve lighting large bonfires around which they would sacrifice crops and animals whilst wearing costumes made from animal pelts and animal heads. (Anyone who remembers the film “The Wicker Man” will have a fair idea what went on!) Hence, dressing up costumes, lighting bonfires, feasting and mischief-making became stalwarts of Hallowe’en tradition.
Bobbing for apples, however, one of the oldest traditions associated with Hallowe’en, probably does not originate from Britain at all. In the first century AD, the Romans conquered the territories of Celtic Britain and were the first outsiders to influence the Samhain festival. They brought with them their own celebrations; Feralia, a day in late October during which the Romans would honour the dead, and a holiday to venerate Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The apple and apple tree were symbolic of the goddess Pomona so it likely that the Hallowe’en traditions of eating toffee apples and bobbing for apples etc have their roots in these Roman celebrations and their rites.
The traditions of Hallowe’en were also influenced by Christianity which spread throughout Britain in the centuries following Roman rule. All Saints Day, a church sanctioned holiday which honoured the saints and martyrs, had, in the early centuries, been held in May. However, in 835 AD Pope Gregory moved it to 1st November, probably in an effort to stamp out the pagan festival of Samhain by trying to replacing with it with this holy celebration. Those observing All Saints Day often dressed as saints or angels and in Scotland people would impersonate the dead. This may further explain the Hallowe’en tradition of donning costumes, particularly ghoulish or scary ones, which we still enjoy today.
All Saints Day became known as All Hallows Day or Hallowmas. Consequently, the day of Samhain, 31st October, was called All Hallows Eve and, eventually, this became shortened to Hallowe’en. Whilst the newer Christian practices were observed at this time, people still clung to the older, pagan customs of Samhain, too. This melding together, therefore, of the Celtic, Roman and Christian rites formed the Hallowe’en holiday traditions in which we still indulge. Strange as it seems, there is a direct link, stretching across two millennia, connecting a druid priest in an animal skin to a teenage night-clubber in a ‘Scream’ mask.
Trick or Treating is a very popular Hallowe’en tradition which people tend to associate more with our American cousins than as a British custom. You would be forgiven for thinking that the practice of trick or treating originated in the USA and then spread to the UK. But it’s more likely to be the other way around. The pagan Celts believed that, at Samhain, fairies would roam the mortal world dressed as beggars. These fairies would go from door to door asking for food and the folk who were generous and gave to the faeries would be rewarded. Anyone mean enough to turn the disguised fairies away empty-handed, however, would be punished and all sorts of cruel tricks would be played on the household.
The tradition of trick or treating may also have its origins in the late medieval practice of ‘souling’. The poor and needy of the area would go from house to house on Hallowmas, the day after Hallowe’en, and receive food or money in return for their praying for the dead or, occasionally, performing a song and dance. Shakespeare mentions this tradition in his 1593 play “Two Gentlemen of Verona”; one of the characters accuses his master of “...Pulling [ie whining or moaning] like a beggar at Hallowmas”.
When settlers from England and Ireland started to flood into the USA during the 1800’s they probably took many of their Hallowe’en traditions with them, including the practice of visiting neighbours in the hope of being given a small favour. Over the years this custom has been altered and adapted and now, if you have kids (or a front door), it is impossible to avoid trick or treating on Hallowe’en in America. But, when a gang of noisy kids all dressed as the latest superhero or pop star is banging on your door and demanding sweeties, don’t blame Uncle Sam, blame those 15th Century beggars!
Similarly, the practice of making jack o’lanterns, ie hollowing out a pumpkin, carving it a spooky face and placing a candle inside, is often thought of as an all-American tradition. As with trick-or-treating, however, it was a centuries old British custom which crossed the Atlantic to be adapted and embraced by the Americans.
In 17th Century Britain the term ‘jack o’lantern’ was used as a nickname for the natural phenomenon known as ignis fatuus (fool’s fire), the mysterious flickering lights sometimes seen over marshes and wetlands by night. These lights, also known as will o’the wisp, are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they oxidise. For centuries, before there was a scientific explanation, people told stories to account for these mysterious lights. These tales usually involved mischievous sprites and spirits who lured travellers from the safety of the path into the dangerous quagmire of the marshland. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, such stories also frequently revolved around a man named Stingy Jack.
The story goes that Stingy Jack played several tricks on the devil. He convinced the devil to climb up a tree to pick some fruit and then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t get back down again. Jack freed the devil but only after making him promise that he wouldn’t claim Jack’s soul when he died. When Stingy Jack did eventually pop his clogs, God felt he had been too mean and nasty to allow his soul into Heaven and the devil, true to his word, rejected him at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave Jack a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and, supposedly, has been roaming the earth with it ever since. So, in Ireland, the ghost lights seen around the swamps were said to be Stingy Jack’s restless soul wandering the countryside. Both he and the lights were dubbed Jack O’Lantern.
On All Hallow’s Eve it became a tradition in Ireland to hollow out turnips, gourds and potatoes, place a candle inside, and then carry or display them to ward off evil spirits and keep the restless soul of Stingy Jack at bay. When, in the 1800s, a large number of Irish immigrant workers arrived in America an old tradition met a new crop. The immigrants soon found that the pumpkins available in their new home were bigger and much easier to carve so started to use them for the traditional jack o’lanterns. Of course, these days, the tradition of placing a carved pumpkin in the window or on the porch at Hallowe’en is incredibly popular in the States and many American homes have a jack o’lantern on display over the holiday. But how many people realise why they are doing this… and just who and what they are trying to ward away?
However you are celebrating Hallowe’en, do enjoy yourself. But remember, whether you are be spending your Hallowe’en dressed as the latest Hollywood monster, lighting a bonfire, playing a few pranks, indulging in a toffee apple or a pint or six of cider, bobbing for apples, hollowing out a pumpkin or trailing around after your over-excited kids as they blackmail the neighbours into giving them chocolate, you have centuries of tradition to thank for setting the party mood.