The days are drawing shorter, it’s almost dark before you get home, and there’s a frosty chill in the air; the most hallowed day of the year is fast approaching and we can’t wait to be spooked!
Halloween is one of the biggest commercial holidays in the world, and with roots deeply entrenched in pagan festivals, religious celebrations and superstition, the history of Halloween is both dark and gruesome, whilst being entertaining and fascinating all at once.
We all know when it is, we all know how we celebrate: we get dressed up, carve pumpkins, bob for apples and trick or treat to eat all of the sweets – a great time is had by all. But where did these traditions come from? Most of these traditions are a culmination of various religious festivals and, therefore, have varied meanings. Get into the seasonal spirit by joining us on a Jack the Ripper Halloween Tour
Back when the Celts occupied what is now Ireland, they were a superstitious bunch who celebrated the New Year on November 1st, signifying the end of summer. They believed that October 31st was the night that merged the world of the living with that of the dead. To protect themselves against harsh winters, the Celts would light bonfires, making sacrifices to the dead; leave food out to appease the wandering spirits and sing, dance and tell fortunes. This celebration was known as Samhain (pronounced sow-en or sav-ahn) – there is much speculation on this matter).
By 1000AD, the Christian churches were a dominating force and were trying to replace traditional Celtic festivals with their own, including Samhain. They declared November 1st All Saints / All Hallows’ Day and November 2nd All Souls’ Day – to allow a day of celebration for all martyrs and saints and a day to honour the dead, respectively. This move led to October 31st being known as All Hallows’ Eve. The evening celebrations on All Hallows’ Eve changed it to Hallows’ Evening, and eventually Hallowe’en.
In 43AD, the Romans adopted many Celtic traditions. They celebrated Feralia in late October to commemorate the passing of the dead, and simply merged this with Samhain. One of the many goddesses they celebrated was Pomona – the goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol was an apple. Apple seed placement was thought to be a way to determine who a girl would marry – they would try to catch apples with their mouths, and the first person to catch one would be first down the aisle. This tradition is still around today, although modern apple bobbing is for fun, as opposed to superstition.
In the 1800s, the poorest people in England and Ireland would traditionally go door to door on All Hallows’ Eve, begging for food or money in exchange for a prayer to the dead. Typically, they were given pastries called ‘soul-cakes’ and this was encouraged by the Church in place of the old Celtic tradition of leaving out food to placate the ghosts and spirits. America soon adopted this notion from the immigrants following the Irish potato famine in 1846, and it eventually evolved into the trick or treating that we know and love today.
Traditionally, the Celts would dress up and wear masks during Samhain celebrations in an attempt to avoid being recognised by ghosts, and, therefore, avoid a harsh winter with low supplies. Dressing up in costume remains a very popular pastime for those participating in Halloween celebrations, featuring angels, devils, witches, ghosts, vampires, werewolves and zombies – all characters associated with the occult, paganism and the spirit world.
Pumpkin carving goes hand in hand with Halloween. Whilst not strictly a tradition relating to Halloween, legend has it that an Irish man named Stingy Jack tricked the Devil, on numerous occasions, to do his bidding, but made a deal that meant the Devil could not take his soul. When Jack died, the Devil sent him out to roam the Earth for all eternity with just a burning coal for light. Jack carved out a turnip for his coal and became known as Jack of the Lantern or Jack O’ Lantern. Irish people would carve their own turnips and light them up to frighten Jack away. When they migrated to America, they took this tradition with them and found that pumpkins made much better lanterns, able to take more complex carving and illustrations.
The history of Halloween is not complete without all of the superstitions that come along with it. Many stem from Celtic times – such as nut cracking in the fire to determine success or failure in love, apple bobbing to decide who would be first to wed, and not crossing the path of a black cat – just in case it was a witch. Newer traditions include avoiding breaking mirrors in fear of seven years’ bad luck, not walking under ladders, and spilling salt. What superstitions do you obey?
This day so Hallowed
Now you know the history of Halloween, and why we do the things we do, it’s time to celebrate! How are you going to spend your Halloween? It’s time to decide on a costume and where you will spend this hallowed eve.
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