Halloween, or ‘All Hallows Eve’ is today, the eve of Western Christian feast All Hallows Day. It is celebrated in various parts of the world, with a central theme of remembering the dead.
Now the more traditional values of Halloween have been somewhat lost, due to the enthusiasm over the traditions. But many of the activities we perform in todays Halloween, hark back to more sentimental practices for honouring those who have passed. Halloween traditions are believed to have originated from Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival ‘Samhain’. Samhain is the harvest season and marks the beginning of the darker half of the year. It was seen as a liminal time, where the boundaries between our world and the ‘Other World’ are lowest. Because Spirits, Fairies, Ghosts, could pass more easily into our world at this time, offerings of food were left on doorsteps. It was said that the souls of the dead would return home at this time, seeking hospitality, so people would lay a place for them at the dinner table. Despite these Pagan roots the festival is said to have been Christianised as Halloween by the early church. The name originates from the Western Christian celebration ‘All Hallows Day’ or ‘All Saints Day’, which is November 1st and celebrates all saints living and passed.
Halloween Traditions and their Roots
- Trick or Treating – particularly children, dressed in costumes an going door to door asking trick or treat. Usually the home dweller will provide a treat of candy or something similar and if they refuse, the children will perform an act of mischief upon the home. This tradition emerged from ‘guising’, where people would disguise themselves as the spirits for protection and go house to house asking for food or money. This goes further back to the middle ages tradition of ‘mumming’, which involves costumes and singing or short performances in exchange for food. Among Christians as far back as the 15th Century, the ‘treat’ in this practice referred to a ‘soul cake’ around All Hallow Tide (Oct 31-Nov 2). People would dress to represent the deceased and ask for soul cakes in return for praying for the deceased souls.
- Jack o’ Laterns – Originally made from turnips and carried by ‘guisers’ to ward off evil spirits. Later when spread to North America the native pumpkin was used and was found to be easier to carve. There is a folklore associated to the Jack o’ Latern, that says it represents a “soul who is denied entry to both heaven and hell”. Carving a pumpkin and inserting a candle is now a popular Halloween tradition.
- Costumes – Typically modelled after supernatural scary beings, such as vampires, monsters, ghosts, skeletons, witches and devils. Later this tradition extends to include popular figures, super heroes and archetypes such as ninjas and princesses. Halloween costumes were brought to America from the guising tradition in Ireland in Scotland by migrants. The first mass production of Halloween costumes in the USA was in the 1930’s, when trick or treating became popular.
- Games and Activities – Many of the older games contain divination rituals especially regarding death and marriage. In the middle ages these were practiced by a rare few, as they were considered to be ‘deadly serious’ practices. A common game that remains today is Apple Bobbing, where a tub full of water has apples floating in which are fetched out with only the mouth of the participants. Some older English traditions include throwing apple peel over ones shoulder and interpreting the peel as a letter, which would represent the first letter of the name of the throwers future spouse. Two hazelnuts would be roasted in a fire, named after the roaster and the person they desire. If they roast together it foretells a good match, while if one of the nuts jumps away it is a bad sign. Unmarried women were told that if they gaze into the mirror on Halloween, they would see their future spouse. While if a skeleton appears it foretells that the women will die before meeting them!
- Food – Barmbrack (Ireland). Bonfire toffee (Great Britain). Candy apples/toffee apples (Great Britain and Ireland). Candy apples, Candy corn, candy pumpkins (North America). Monkey nuts(Ireland and Scotland). Caramel apples. Caramel corn. Colcannon (Ireland). Halloween cake. Candy as skulls, pumpkins, bats, worms, etc.. Roasted pumpkin seeds. Roasted sweet corn. Soul cakes.