Like me, you might be mistaken in thinking the Americans invented Halloween. They certainly seem to make more of it than we do, with their fancy costumes, enormous pumpkins and elaborate trick or treat antics. However, Halloween actually started in England over 2,000 years with the Celts who celebrated New Year’s Day on 1 November. Known as Samhain and pronounced ‘sow’-en’, it literally means ‘the end of summer’ and was a time for celebrating the harvest and for honouring the dead. In addition, the Druids believed that at the end of the year the barrier between the living and the dead became thin, so on 31 October spirits would come back from the dead and roam freely amongst the living.
The thought of wayward souls walking the streets with the living was a frightening prospect, especially as some believed the disembodied spirits from the previous year would return to find a body to inhabit. To discourage and frighten the spirits away, entire villages would dress in ghoulish costumes and masks in the hope that their unwelcome visitors would not recognize them. Thus began the modern day custom of dressing up as ghosts, witches and werewolves!
After the Romans conquered the Celts, efforts were made to convert them to Catholicism. In the 8th century the Church moved All Saints Day, the holiday designated to honour Christian martyrs, from May to November 1 in the hope that the Druids would associate this observance with their own ancient rituals for honouring the dead. 31 October became known as All Hallows Eve, meaning the day before All Hallows Day, and soon the word became corrupted to Halloween.
The practice of trick or treating is thought to have originated with the early Christians. There is a centuries old European custom called “souling”, where on or around All Hallows Day early Christians would walk from village to village asking for soul cakes (small square pieces of bread with currants). In exchange for these cakes, the recipient would offer a prayer on behalf of the donor’s dead relatives. It was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death and that a prayer, even from a stranger, could help the soul pass into heaven.
Halloween was taken to America by early Irish and Scottish immigrants and the practice of carving pumpkins has its origins in a story from Irish folklore. The story is about Jack, a farmer who had a reputation for being a drunkard and a trickster. One day he had a fateful encounter with the Devil in which he tricked the Devil into climbing a tree to pick some fruit. Jack then placed a cross on the lower bark, thus preventing the demon from getting out of the tree. Jack eventually removed the cross, but only after making the Devil promise never to take his soul to Hell. Years later when Jack died, Heaven turned him away because of his transgressions on earth, so Jack had nowhere to go but to Hell. When the Devil answered the gate, he wouldn’t permit Jack to enter, stating that a deal’s a deal, but the demon did take pity on him and tossed out a burning ember. Jack happened to have a turnip in his pocket and he placed the coal in the big root to make the first Jack-O-Lantern.
On the night when the dead are meant to walk among the living, Jack’s way is lit with lanterns as he wanders the world. Lanterns were originally carved from turnips or even potatoes, but were soon substituted with pumpkins once the immigrant settlers discovered them in their new land.
So, there you have it. A potted history of Halloween!