Something Wicked This Way Comes: A Brief History of Halloween 

Everyone loves a good scare; Halloween is one of the most popular holidays of the year, one which many look forward to. As soon as it hits autumn, we scour the shops for Halloween decor. Today we associate it with trick or treat, dressing up and transforming your home into a haunted mansion. There are countless films and stories about it; it is firmly embedded in our culture. Some may know that the holiday and many of its traditions have Pagan origins, not entirely a modern American import as many believe. So how did it come to be what it is today?

Celtic Roots

The earliest form of the celebration is the Pagan festival of Samhain (pronounced sah-vin, or sow-in), originating in the Celtic countries of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany, Isle of Mann, and Cornwall. Translated, Samhain means ‘summers end’, and does not refer to a Pagan god of death, a common misconception. The festival marked the coming of the darker half of the year, when the nights began to draw in. The Celts saw the year in only two seasons, summer and winter. Samhain is held by some as the New Year of the old Celtic calendar, and is still celebrated by modern day Pagan religions. Summer is over, the harvest is done for the year, the leaves turn and trees become bare. It all symbolises ending. Other Pagans celebrate the new year with a beginning rather than an end, at Imbolc, usually on February 1st, marking the beginning of spring and the farming season. ‘Beltain’ was Samhain’s summertime equivalent, marking the beginning of summer.

Samhain was a ‘feast of the dead’, a time when they believed the veil between our world and the next became thin, allowing the living and the dead to mix. It was a time to remember and celebrate the dead, and reflect on the year that had passed in preparation for the new one. The celebrations would begin on the 31st, and continue until sunrise the following day. A literal ‘feast for the dead’ would often take place, in which a dinner would be set out for dead, and people would give an offering from their own plate to those of the deceased. A variation on this is the ‘dumb feast’, which would be held in silence. Food was often left on doorsteps and at altars for the ‘wandering dead’ who had slipped through the veil, guided by candles in windows. Costumes were born out of this, as in order to avoid being recognised by the wandering spirits, people would disguise themselves as ghoulish creatures to confuse them. Mumming shows were also performed in later years. (Robert A. Davis argues that no sources attribute these celebrations to the remembrance of the dead, but that could perhaps be explained by the general lack of written documents of this period, long before the printing press, when the majority of the population were illiterate. These traditions were born of and continued by folklore.) Bonfires were lit, originally termed ‘bone fires’, as the bones from the feast would be thrown it. Also thrown into the flames were stones, carved with names and then retrieved in the morning. The condition of the stone would determine your fortunes for the coming year.

The tradition of vegetable carving began here too, likely in Ireland, but not with pumpkins as we are familiar with today. Instead turnips were used, carved into ghoulish faces to look like ‘friendly spirits’, and ward away evil. Pumpkins later became prevalent in the US, where they grew abundantly, when 19th century British and European immigrants to the states discovered they were easier to carve. In fact, this year, English Heritage are encouraging a revival of the turnip tradition, owing to a poor pumpkin harvest. The term ‘Jack-O’-Lantern’ possibly comes from Irish folklore, when a miserable drunk named Stingy Jack attempted to trick Satan. The story of how he tricked him varies, but in each variation, too sinful for Heaven and barred from Hell, Jack is doomed to roam earth eternally with nothing but a burning ember inside a hollow turnip. Another possible origin is that they are named for the strange lights that floated over peat bogs and through woodlands, popular in Scottish folklore, so named Jack O’ Lanterns, or ‘Will-o-the-wisp’ (if you’ve seen Disney’s Brave, you’ll know what those are!) These were a type of fae, enticing travellers to stray from their path. 

A dark festival by nature, Samhain also had an even darker side. Every seven years, the festival of ‘Tara’ coincided with Samhain. Tara was also the location of the High Kings court. On this day, Irish kings would be sacrificed. The tradition led to two Irish kings abdicating before the end of their seven years, and thus avoiding death. But the sacrifice would still be done, using a ‘mock king’ in his place. During the four days of Tara, the old king would be killed, and the successor inaugurated and celebrated. The king was killed either with a priests spear, ‘anointed with a witches brew’ ie. poisoned, or by ‘fairy folk’, people in costume who would beset the king. The first Irish king to accept Christianity was Muiercetach, but he could not escape the ritual after he left his wife, taking in a ‘witch woman’. Eventually, masqueraders set his house alight, killing him, on Samhain in 530 AD. Tales of such sacrifice are common in Celtic and Norse folklore, and is in a way echoed today in Guy Fawkes night bonfires.

From Pagan to Christian: Medieval Halloween

In around the 7th and 8th centuries AD, the Catholic Church cleverly began to adapt these pagan feast days into their own. Samhain eventually became All Hallows’ Eve, preceding or All Saint’s Day on the 1st of November, both days that were already sacred to the Pagans. Pope Boniface IV first established All Martyr’s Day on May 13th 609 AD. This was later moved by Pope Gregory III in 835 AD to 1st November, and expanded to include all saints as well as martyrs. In 1000 AD, it was expanded even further, with the introduction of All Soul’s Day on Novermber 2nd. These three feasts, All Hallows’ Eve, All Saint’s Day and All Souls Day were known as Hallowmass. By the 9th century, Christianity was finally sweeping the Celtic lands, having ridden the wave of conquest across Europe waged by the Roman Empire centuries before.

Bobbing for apples dates from the Roman Invasion of Britain, bringing with them apple trees, representing the goddess of fruit trees Pomona. An apple sliced in half was used by women to predict their marriage fortunes. This is where bobbing comes in. Unmarried women would try to bite the apples, which were floating in water or hanging from string. The first to make a bite would be the next one allowed to marry. Sometimes, ladies would aim for a specific apple, etched with the name of a partner. Catch it in one bite and they would marry; two bites, she and her intended would court, but their love would not last. Three, and it was not meant to be. Apple bobbing is still done today, though without the romantic element. Its even made its way into a novel; Agatha Christie capitalised on Halloween’s popularity in her novel Hallow’een Party, in which a young girl is drowned while playing the game.

Despite the Christianisation of Halloween, many of the pagan traditions persisted into the medieval age, and new ones formed. ‘Trick Or Treat’ is often believed to be an American invention, but though it has been popular there for over a century, it too has more ancient roots. In medieval Britain and Europe on All Souls Day, cakes or pastries would be offered called Soul Cakes, given by the wealthy to those less fortunate who would visit their houses. The cakes would be given in exchange for the promise that the recipients would pray for the dead of that household. The tradition was known as ‘Souling’, and later developed into something more akin to modern trick or treating, where children would go door to door asking for food, ale, or coin. In Ireland and Scotland, ‘guising’ was popular, and including costumes like today. Rather than offering prayer, they would sing, tell jokes, or something similar; the ‘trick’ before the treat. Costumes were also used by poorer churches who, being unable to afford relics, would put on a procession through the churchyard with parishioners dressed as their patron saint, along with others dressed as angels and devils. Halloween in the Middle Ages was not associated with witchcraft, as you might expect. Witches were more associated with Walpurgisnacht or Hexennacht, ‘Witches Night’, of German origin and celebrated in April. It is only in more recent times that it has become a witches holiday. 

Victorian Halloween

In early 19th century America, Halloween was not yet widely popular, being opposed in colonial New England owing to their Puritan beliefs. In the southern colonies however it was more popular, where various European ethnic groups mixed along with American Indians, resulting in uniquely American variations on the traditions. They included celebrating the harvest, tales of the dead, ghost stories and dancing, much like the Celtic forerunner. It wasn’t until the second half of the century that Halloween took off in America, in some part encouraged by the influx of Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine. They brought with them the traditional costumes and trick or treating.

Meanwhile in Victorian Britain, there was a huge trend for belief in the supernatural in the latter half of the 1800’s. ‘Memento Mori’ was common during the age, a rather morbid preoccupation with remembering the dead. Photographs were taken of the dead, in the belief that the film had the ability to capture something of their spirit that the eye could not see. Seances were popular, in which Sherlock Holmes writer Arthur Conan Doyle was a firm believer. He even believed in fairies, quite a contrast to his famously logical creation. Queen Victoria herself took part in an annual Halloween procession at her Scottish retreat of Balmoral. But despite all of this, Halloween celebrations had depleted somewhat, owing to the rise of the Protestant church. Charles Dickens, returning from America, soon penned A Christmas Carol, famously full of ghosts. The Victorians were fascinated by such stories, with ‘Penny Dreadfuls’, cheap Gothic-inspired serials filled with illustrations, proving popular with the growing semi literate population. Gothic characters from the era like Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster now make popular costumes. The divination aspect of Halloween was again in focus in this century, the tricks to predict marriage prospects ever popular. Postcards of the age show the preoccupation with romance; they feature friendly images rather than spooky ones, with the emphasis often on love.

Halloween in the 20th century – today 

Halloween today is predominantly secular, with little reverence for the dead taking place. By the 1920’s, in the age of the Bright Young People, lavish Halloween parties were common. The holiday had shifted to fun from fear, with rowdy Mischief Night pranks by teens and young people becoming an issue. This worsened during the Great Depression, with the pranks escalating into violence on occasion, likely driven by hard times. The onset of WWII and sugar rationing halted trick or treating in its tracks. By the 1950’s, an effort was made to contain the celebrations, holding parties in town halls .The violence had made way for a festival that was targeted mainly toward children. After the post-war baby boom, and with sugar off the ration, it was a lucrative venture for businesses, cashing in on sales of sweets. Today a quarter of the sweets bought in the US are sold around Halloween. By the 60’s and 70’s, it was more commercial, with decorations becoming widely available, and costumes began to include TV characters as well as just spooky incarnations. Horror films gained popularity, but the demons were often human, not other worldy. The 80’s saw adults joining in once again. Nowadays the popularity of television series like ‘Supernatural’ and ‘American Horror Story’ prove that interest in the supernatural never goes away. Halloween is now the second biggest holiday after Christmas, with spending averaging $6 billion a year.

The A-Z Of Witchcraft – Michael D. Bailey (Scarecrow Press, 2009)

The Ritual Killing Of Irish Kings – C.F Dalton (Folklore journal)

A Witches Bible – Janet and Stewart Farrar.

McBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language

Escaping Through Flames: Halloween As A Christian Festival – Robert A. Davis

Halloween: From Pagan Ritual To Party Night – Nicholas Rogers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s