10 things you should know about the history and origins of Halloween

Halloween_origins of HalloweenSource: GoGuide

The continuation of an ancient tradition or a product of modern-day commercialism? A case can be made for both influences when it comes to the evolution of Halloween as we know today. So without further ado, let us take a gander at the factors that played their part in the history and (potential) origins of Halloween – ranging from harvest festivals, veneration of the dead to tropes of popular culture.

1) The (Probable) Celtic Connection –

Folklorists and researchers have put forth various theories relating to the history of Halloween, ranging from ancient Roman festivals (like Parentalia) to Gaelic festivals (like Samhain). However, the general consensus pertains to the latter-mentioned festival of Samhain when it comes to one of the possibly pagan origins of Halloween (or at least some secular aspects of it). To that end, the very term Samhain (pronounced ‘sah-win’, originated from Old Gaelic samain or samuin) is derived from the Old Irish for ‘summer’s end’, and as such falls on the period between 31st October and 1st November.

In terms of history, the festival of Samhain did have ancient Celtic pagan origins, with the date (or an extended period during the time of the year) having significance even in Gaulish culture – as could be evidenced from the month of SAMON[IOS]. Furthermore, Samhain is also mentioned as one of the four major seasonal festivals in Old Irish literature- which still forms the basis for our knowledge about their ancient mythology. To that end, in the mythical narrative, it is the goddess Morrigan who has a romantic tryst with the Dagda, the father-figure deity among the Celtic gods, on the night of Samhain, thus once again suggesting the religious significance of the date in pre-Medieval Celtic culture.

2) The Seasonal ‘Change’ –

Halloween_origins of Halloween

Source: Astronlogia

Halloween (or its Gaelic equivalent Samhain) is usually associated with the motifs of death and the supernatural. Now, if we delve into history, fragmentary evidence hints at how Samhain (or its ancient Celtic equivalent) possibly started out as a communal activity (or ritualistic celebration) that heralded the end of the harvesting season – leading to storage of resources and returning of the flocks from their pastures. Essentially, it alluded to the coming ‘darkness’ of the winter in the western European lands.

This proverbial ‘darkness’, in terms of Celtic mythology, was often represented by the chaotic forces that personified both death and blight. In ancient Irish mythology, such antagonistic roles were taken by the Formorii, the old adversaries of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the tribe of gods. Medieval Christian writers also mentioned (like in the Annals of Four Masters) the name of one Crom Cruach – supposedly a malevolent Celtic deity of fertility and sacrifice.

These legends, though questionable in their compositions, do contain occasional descriptions of sacrifices (even human sacrifices) made to this vague entity (and others) for appeasement during the long and hard winter. On the historical front, some scholars have hypothesized how such tales, along with mythical narratives involving otherworldly visits, may have recalled the ancient practices of human sacrifice in Celtic cultures, like the bog bodies and their ritualistic murders (usually kings and nobles were sacrificed to be ‘messengers’ into this fantastical Otherworld). And if that is indeed the case, the origins of Halloween could be more sinister than suggested by the veneer of popular culture.

3) The Aos Si –

Halloween_origins of Halloween

However, on a slightly cheerful note, beyond death and sacrifices, we should also consider the ‘positive’ side of Celtic mythology and how the ancient folks may have invoked the protection of benevolent deities during their times of hardship (in the winter). Some of these deities are broadly categorized as the Aos Si – basically the fairies and spirits who could come into our world. Interestingly enough, in terms of mythical symbolism, Samhain was considered as a transitional time of the year when the veil between our world and the Otherworld thinned, thus allowing for the ‘non-restrictive’ passage of divine and supernatural entities.

Now in terms of history, some academics have put forth the notion that these Aos Si were/are possibly the ‘vulgarized’ version of ancient Celtic gods – thus harking back to the remnants of a pagan culture that existed before the coming of later religions (including Christianity). In any case, by the late medieval times, people (especially in the British Isles) began to actively propitiate such entities in the hopes of protecting their homes and livestock during the hard winter.

The consequent ritualistic traditions involved eating, drinking, lighting candles and bonfires, disguises (that were possibly applied to ward off many of the feared spirits), and recitations of verses for the exchange of food. Suffice it to say, many of these activities have possibly survived through the celebration of Halloween over the centuries.

4) Halloween – The Scottish Translation For All Hallow’s Eve

Halloween_origins of Halloween

Painting by Fra Angelico (circa 1395 –1455 AD). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Beyond Celtic myths, the history and origins of Halloween were also (probably) influenced by Christianity and its associated traditions. In fact, the very term Halloween or Hallow-e’en (Scottish in origin) roughly means ‘hallowed evening’, and it refers to the All Hallow’s Eve, the evening before the All Hallow’s Day – a Christian holy day mostly celebrated on 1st November.

According to most historical traditions, the feast of All Hallows’, celebrated over a period of three days from 31st October to 2nd November (ending in All Souls’ Day) – collectively known as Allhallowtide, was possibly started in the 8th century AD as means to commemorate the saints, martyrs, and the departed souls. And quite intriguingly, it is entirely possible that the Allhallowtide as a Christianized celebration was earnestly advocated by the Church, headed by Pope Gregory III, to obscure the pagan characteristics of Samhain which also fell on 1st of November.

5) The Religious ‘Amalgamation’ –

Halloween_origins of Halloween

All Souls’ Day painting by Jakub Schikaneder (1855–1924). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Allhallowtide, in many ways, pertained to the veneration of the dead. In that regard, it can be hypothesized that this Christian allusion to death possibly mirrored the symbolic scope of ‘death’ (as represented by the onset of winter) in pagan Celtic and even Germanic cultures. Simply put, rather than completely ‘replacing’ the pagan nature of Samhain (and by extension, the precursor to Halloween), the celebration of Allhallowtide resulted in the ‘fusion’ of pre-medieval rituals and Christian traditions, thus possibly paving the way for what we know today as Halloween.

6) Costumes and Disguises –

Halloween_origins of Halloween

By the late 12th century, many Europeans were expected to attend Mass during the feast days of Allhallowtide, while the town bellmen dressed in black mournfully sounded their bells to remind the Christians of the departed souls. There is also an interesting theory on how some of the impoverished church establishments couldn’t afford to display the relics of the martyred saints. Instead, they relied on mummers (the practice was known as mumming) and even ordinary folks to dress up as saints, with special costumes being woven out of straws.

In some parts of Europe, the 1st of November was associated with the souls of purgatory that were believed to have gathered in graveyards for their ‘hideous’ congregations and carnivals, which alluded to the popular allegory of Danse Macabre. This resulted in actual masques and even carousels where people dressed up as corpses to enact the thematic elements of death and purgatory.

However, with the advent of Reformation and the rise of Protestantism in Britain, the concept of purgatory was relegated in favor of old customs. And as we mentioned before, folks in these parts were already accustomed to ritualistic disguises that were applied to denotatively confuse the spirits of the otherworld (suggesting the lingering influence of pre-Christian Samhain traditions). In any case, the combination of many of these ceremonial practices possibly contributed to what we know as ‘guising’ during the time of Halloween. To that end, the first direct reference to the practice of Halloween ‘guising’ in North America comes from the early 20th century.

7) The Origins of Trick-or-Treating –

Halloween_origins of Halloween

Source: Medieval.eu

Samhain traditions already entailed the exchange of food in return for short songs and prayers. In fact, some scholars have hypothesized that this custom was prevalent in many solicitation rituals related to the winter, possibly because of a shortage of resources faced by the poorer folks during the months.

By the late medieval period (circa 15th century), the Allhallowtide brought forth the practice of ‘souling’ – wherein people baked ‘soul cakes’ specifically for the purpose of distributing them among the less fortunate ones. The charitable activity, followed in part of Europe, involved children (especially from the poorer sections of the society) singing and praying for the recently departed and in exchange being ‘compensated’ with their fair share of ‘soul cakes’. Others left food items in the outdoors as a symbolic feast for the souls of their loved ones.

Interestingly enough, a similar custom of asking for food was also followed later in the United States, but during Thanksgiving instead of Halloween, and it was unassumingly known as Thanksgiving begging. As for the ‘trick’ part, playing pranks, like tipping outhouses and egging buildings, during the particular time of the year was a common occurrence in North America in the 19th century. However, by the 20th century, some of these seemingly innocuous acts took the form of blatant vandalism, thereby forcing parents to adopt a more moderate form of celebrating Halloween (for their children) – hence giving rise to what we know today as trick-or-treating.

8) The History Behind Jack-o’-lantern –

Halloween_origins of Halloween

A traditional Irish turnip-carved jack-o’-lantern on the right. Source: Ripley’s

Historically, in the 17th century, Jack-o’-lantern as a term was possibly applied to the night watchmen who roamed the streets with their lanterns. Inspired by this ‘categorization’, the word was colloquially also used for the then-perceived mysterious phenomenon of light (basically the oxidation of methane and phosphine) seen over peat bogs and swamps. All known as will-o’-the-wisp, such strange illuminating patterns were often associated with sightings of elemental spirits and even ghosts.

Over time, a popular legend was contrived that involved one blacksmith named Stingy Jack and his objectionable dealings with the Devil, which led him to a cursed existence guided only by a single burning coal. Jack put this coal inside a hollowed-out turnip and thus together they were known as the ‘Jack of the Lantern’ or Jack-o’-lantern.

Such Jack-o’-lanterns are believed to have been made in Ireland during times of Halloween (or Samhain) and the objects, true to their lore, were originally carved from turnips (and often beets and potatoes) as coal-filled lanterns and then endowed with grotesque faces. Like many things Irish, the tradition carried over to America, with one of the earliest references to a pumpkin Jack-o’-lantern being made in 1892 at a mayor’s ball in Atlanta.

9) Apples and Fortune-Telling –

Halloween_origins of Halloween

Source: NPR

Given the strong association of Halloween’s history with the enigmatic ‘unknown’, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of the original rituals and games were based on the esoteric concept of augury and divination. One of such ‘exercises’ involved apple-bobbing, a fun activity that originated from the 17th-century era British Isles and carried over to Colonial America as a popular form of fortune-telling. To that end, it was believed that the first person who could pluck the floating apple with the mouth would be the first one to get married among the participants.

Talking of marriage, another popular game involving maidens entailed the peeling of apples at midnight. The continuous peels tossed over the shoulders were supposed to spell out the first letter of the name of their future husbands. The foretelling of spouses was also made popular by slightly disturbing practices like mirror gazing on the Halloween night, with the reflection believed to provide a fleeting glimpse of their future partner (or a skull, if they were destined to die before marriage).

10) Movie and Other Influences –

And lastly, since we are talking about the history of Halloween, we shouldn’t overlook the influences of the post-20th century period. In that regard, popular culture had its fair share of prominence at least when it comes to the ‘visual motifs’ of present-day Halloween. For example, movies like Frankenstein and Dracula (which in turn were adapted from 19th-century literature) played their part in influencing the ‘looks’ of various guises. Similarly, the ubiquitous theme of the haunted house was possibly made famous by Disneyland when they opened their Haunted House attraction in 1969.

On the same note, there have been controversies surrounding the celebration of Halloween and its alleged Satanic values. However, on the historical front, the origins of Halloween are possibly older than the very concept of Satan in Christianity, with pagan Celtic myths making no clear distinction between what later-Abrahamic religions perceived as ‘good’ and ‘evil’. To that end, if we consider the objective course of the evolution of Halloween, it was probably influenced by both pre-Medieval Celtic traditions and later Christian customs – and this ‘synthesized’ form of celebration was popularized in America (initially as a children’s holiday) mostly by the Irish immigrants.

Online References – History.com / LiveScience / MentalFloss / BBC

Book References – Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (by Nicholas Rogers) / Halloween: Why We Celebrate It the Way We Do (by Martin Hintz, Kate Hintz)

Featured Image Source: GoGuide

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About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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