The Story Behind Halloween
Hallowe’en, All Hallow’s Eve or All Saints’ Eve. Whatever you call it, the 31st of October is a fun-filled day of fancy dress and frightening decorations. This autumnal celebration is observed by countries all over the world, but does anyone think about, or indeed know, why? Let’s uncover the facts behind the fear.
It may seem hard to believe, but this commercialized festival has historic origins and religious roots. It is thought by many that the customs of today are a result of folk beliefs from Europe some 2,000 years ago; Celts of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany marked the end of the harvest season, and start of winter, with celebration and superstition. The thought is widely held that a lot of what we know now of Halloween developed from the Gaelic festival ‘Samhain’, which means “summer’s end”.
It represented the move from the warm, lighter months to the cold, darker half of the year, a time where death was more prevalent. The start of the new year for these communities was November the 1st, and they believed that the partition dividing the worlds of the living and the dead became less distinct on the eve (31st October), allowing ghosts of those dearly departed to return to earth. Roaming spirits needed to be appeased during Samhain to ensure families and livestock were able to survive the cold months of winter. Sacred bonfires were lit, with the flames and smoke of these deemed to have protective powers, preventing the darkness of death. The Celts also wore costumes, typically animal carcasses, during this time as disguising oneself was another way of being kept safe.
Through time these rituals developed. Some mischievous people began marking themselves to represent dark spirits and demanded treats from householders, in exchange they would give them good fortune. If the house refused, misfortune would befall those who lived there. Trick-or-treating was born. Fire-lit lanterns were carried by those travelling house-to-house, to shield themselves from the actual evil spirits. That’s where the carved pumpkins come in.
In the 8th Century, the day of November 1st was declared ‘All Saint’s Day’ by the Pope to honour saints and martyrs. The holy celebration began to blend with and incorporate some of the rituals involved in the Celtic holiday as the religion spread throughout Celtic lands. Candles would be lit for the dead and the bonfire tradition remained as a way of keeping the devil away. It is argued that this was a way for the church to replace the pagan Samhain. The term ‘hallow’ actually means holy person, and so the eve of the day became known as All Hallows’ Eve, and eventually Halloween.
More historic story than horror story, it’s an interesting insight into the past and how the peculiar acts of today have evolved from meaningful religious traditions.