Insight & Analysis

Happy Halloween!

Published: Oct 2019

Today marks Halloween, a time for children to dress up in scary costumes and roam from house to house on the hunt for sweet treats. Fail to hand over a sugary treat however, and you could find yourself being tricked – a dastardly prank at the best of times. But what are the origins of Halloween, and why is it celebrated?

Halloween carved pumpkin in a dark and mysterious forest

The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the pivotal time of year when summer ended and winter began. The Celts believed that on the night of the 31st October, when the boundary between this world and the next was at its thinnest, ghosts of the dead would revisit the mortal world.

When the sun set, the Celts would celebrate the transition of the seasons by dressing up in costumes made from animal hides, as a disguise against evil spirits. A special feast would be prepared from the gathered summer crops, and lanterns were made from hollowed out gourds (a green squash-type vegetable) to ward off the evil spirits. This, historians argue, is the beginning of the carved pumpkin, or Jack-o-lantern if you’re in the US.

By the 9th Century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, and around 1000 A.D the Church made 1st November All Saints Day – an attempt to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related church-sanctioned holiday. Called Alholowmesse (or All Saints Day), the traditional night of Samhain began to be called All-Hallows-Eve, and eventually, Halloween.

On this day it became customary to bake and share cakes for all christened souls, and groups of poor people would often go door-to-door to collect these so-called ‘soul cakes’ in exchange for the recipients praying for the dead. This tradition gradually faded out until the early 20th century, where now it’s known as trick or treating.

So if your doorbell rings tonight, and if you’re kind enough to spare a few treats, you’ll be taking part in a tradition that’s thousands of years old.

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