As Halloween creeps upon us with its ghoulish gatherings and little monsters spill into the streets in hunt of sweet treats, we often hear how it is an Americanised festival that has made its way across the pond, but did you realise it was actually the other way around and most of the activities associated with this time of year are rooted in European folklore and tradition?
The origin of Halloween as we know it has been traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which was held on November 1st – a date that marked the transition from autumn to winter. It was believed by the Celts that during this time the ghosts of the dead would revisit the mortal world as the boundary between both worlds became blurred. Large bonfires were lit in each village in order to ward off any evil spirits and glowing embers from these fires would be distributed to each house in order to protect people and keep them warm during the dark winter months.
In the era of Christianity, many festivals and traditions were absorbed and new ones created, including All Saints Day which was also held on November 1st, dedicated to honouring saints and martyrs. All Saints Day became to be referred to as All Hallows and the night before came to be referred to as All Hallows Eve, which of course ended up being known as Halloween.
Throughout Britain, it was tradition to carve faces into hollowed-out vegetables such as swedes and turnips and is believed to have originated from an Irish folktale. These faces would usually be illuminated by a candle and displayed on windowsills to ward off any evil spirits. During the 19th century, mass immigration of many English, Scottish and Irish to America (many from Ireland escaping the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s) meant the old traditions of Halloween were taken with them. They soon discovered that pumpkins were perfect for creating their jack-o’-lanterns, and so they became the medium of choice for carving their elaborate ghosts and ghouls.
Another assumption is that the tradition of trick-or-treating is from America, however it is likely to be another early medieval custom. Just before All Souls’ Day, poorer members of the community would go door to door receiving food in return for their promise to pray for the household’s dead relatives. This activity was encouraged by the church and became known as ‘going a souling’.
The telling of ghost stories and souls returning from the dead has also long been a tradition at this time of year, and tales of spirits were at the heart of early All Hallows of Samhain celebrations, leading to many of the superstitions that have become custom during the Halloween season.