Hallowe’en or Halloween is a contraction of the Scottish expression All Saints’ Eve, which falls on 31st October before All Saints’ Day on November 1st. Our modern Halloween celebrations stem from a variety of much older customs, from Celtic rituals and medieval traditions.
Celtic occupation of the British Isles can be traced back to the 13th century B.C. In Celtic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, an important festival called Samhain was celebrated on 31st October/1st November, which was the beginning of a new year in the Celtic calendar. It was believed that on this first day of winter, the dead returned to Earth. The Celts in England, Wales and Brittany had a similar tradition, known as Calan Gaeaf in Welsh, also involving the belief that the ghosts of the dead were roaming amongst the living. On this day, sacred bonfires were lit, crops were burnt and animals were sacrificed. The Celts wore costumes, generally animal skins and heads, in order to ward off evil spirits, and they also told fortunes and made predictions for the coming year. Bowls of food were left out to gain goodwill from malevolent ghosts. These festivals not only marked the beginning of winter when it was thought it would be easier for spirits to enter the world, they also were a means of asking for protection from the evils of a long, dark winter period.
Some historians believe that with the advent of the Roman Empire, a Roman festival was added to the Halloween mix. Pomona was the goddess of fruit trees and orchards and was associated with the blossoming of fruit. Her symbol was an apple and as a result, this fruit became incorporated into Halloween activities, still around today in the guise of toffee apples and games such as apple bobbing. However, as Samhain and Calan Gaeaf marked the end of harvest time, it is likely that apples were already used in these festivities during the Celtic period.
During his reign from 731-741, Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in Rome to all saints on November 1st. In Medieval England this day became known as All Hallows and the previous day became Hallowe’en. Around the year 1000, the Church created All Souls’ Day on Nov 2nd and the period from 31st Oct to Nov 2nd was called Allhallowtide or Hallowmass. It is generally thought nowadays that the Church was trying to impose holy days over the pagan Celtic festival which was still being celebrated, but in fact, these designated holy days would begin to include some of the elements of Samhain and Calan Gaeaf.
The Middle Ages
Early traditions from Allhallowtide included the ringing of church bells for the souls in purgatory along with town criers dressed in black. By the 15th century the tradition of souling had begun, which appears to be the starting point for our modern custom of trick or treating. Families with the economic means would provide soul cakes to poor people, who in turn would pray for the souls of the dearly departed from the family. Soul cakes were small fruit-filled pastries, and, similar to the hot cross buns we eat at Easter, they were marked with a cross to show that they were given in alms, that is, with a charitable purpose. This practice was encouraged by the Church in order to replace the pagan habit of leaving food and drink to appease the evil spirits afoot at Halloween.
From the 16th century onwards souling had evolved into a practice whereby people dressed up to personify the dead spirits and received food and offerings on their behalf in return for protection. These people were guisers, or at Allhallowtide they were also known as soulers. It was also believed that by impersonating a dead soul, the soulers themselves were safe from evil spirits in the same way that the Celts had used animal skin disguises at Samhain to ward off unearthly enemies. However as time went on, in England Halloween waned in popularity, although there is evidence that it was still celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and rural areas. The emigrants from these areas to the United States, particularly the Irish, implanted their Halloween traditions in their new country. From the areas mainly inhabited by immigrants, Halloween festivities began to spread into mainstream culture.
Halloween in the 20th century
At the turn of the 20th century, Halloween games for young women included using apple peel to predict the name of their future husbands – just like the Celts had told fortunes many centuries ago. People dressed up in Halloween costumes, and went from house to house asking for food or money, a latter day version of soulers. For a time, vandalism and Halloween pranks threatened to become the main part of the festivities, but in the 1920’s and 30’s there was a concerted effort in America to make Halloween more community-centred and remove references to its more grisly and/or uneasy aspects. By the 1950’s, this aim had generally been achieved and Halloween was both a secular and family–based celebration. Particularly after the baby boom of the 1950’s, Halloween became a mainstream event for children and trick or treating at Halloween was a perfectly normal activity for younger members of the family.
Nowadays, Halloween is a hugely commercial event in the United States, generating billions of dollars from sales of costumes and sweets, along with parades and other activities. Although some people dismiss this new version of Halloween as an American import, it has, in fact, also increased in popularity in recent years in the United Kingdom and Ireland. What would our Celtic ancestors make of it, I wonder?