Origins and Customs of Halloween


Many of us believe that Halloween is an American holiday that has arrived fairly recently to Europe thanks to the cross-cultural exchanges that globalization has enabled. While it is true that the modern version of Halloween has been shaped in the United States and as such has only recently become popular in Europe, the holiday actually has European roots and has been celebrated in Europe for many centuries. 

The roots of Halloween go way back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts were a collection of tribes that lived in present-day Ireland, UK and northern France from 1200 B.C.  The festival of Samhain was held annually on November 1st in celebration of the Celt’s New Year. This day marked the end of the summer and the beginning of the period of harvest and winter.

Over time this festival acquired a certain mysticism to it.  Because of the cold and shorter light days, winter was often associated with the idea of death, while summer was associated with life. As a result, people came to believe that on the day of November 1st the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead became blurred. It was believed that on this night ghosts visited the Earth. 

While the Celts feared the presence of ghosts because of the havoc they were thought to spread and the harm they inflicted on crops, the Celts also believed that the presence of otherworldly spirits made it easier to make predictions about the future. The Celts wore costumes usually made of animal skins and lighted fires where they made sacrifices to the deities in the hope that this will help them tell each other’s fortunes. 

Over time the festival of Samhain changed due to the conquest of the Celtic lands by the Romans in the first century AD and the subsequent influence of Roman festivals and Christian tradition on Samhain.  The Roman festivals of Feralia (which celebrated the passing of the dead) and Pomona (which honored the Roman fruit goddess Pomona) became mixed with the festival of Samhain. As the symbol of the festival of Pomona was the apple, it is believed that most likely the origin of the Halloween custom of bobbing for apples stems from this time period. 

In the 9th century, Christian tradition began to influence Samhain, spreading into Celtic lands and supplementing older Celtic rites. In an attempt to replace the “pagan” festival of Samhain with a church-related festival, All Soul’s Day was established to honor the dead. The day of its celebration was designated to be November the 2nd, as November the 1st was All Saint’s Day. Soon All Soul’s Day incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain, with bone fires and dressing up in costumes. It is also believed that the origins of the word Halloween stem from those times. All Saints day was called in Middle English Alholowmesse. In today’s English, this is All-hallowmas or All-hallows. The evening before All Saint’s Day (October the 31st) became known as  All-Hallows Eve and over time became Halloween. 

As previously mentioned the version of Halloween that is celebrated today is the one that was developed in American culture but only in the 19th century. Initially, Halloween was not very popular in colonial New England because of the wide-spread Protestant belief system. Colonial Halloween festivals only began to emerge as the customs of different European ethnic groups and the customs of  American Indians began to mix. 

Halloween really became popularized across the country in the 19th century with the arrival of the Irish who were fleeing the Irish Potato Famine. During this time, Halloween went from being a holiday primarily focused on ghosts and witchcraft to one focused more on the idea of community gatherings. At the start of the 20th century, the most common way of celebrating Halloween became organizing parties for both adults and children, with food, games, and costumes, and has remained that way since then. 

Sarah Westvik, the opinion editor of the Stork, celebrates Samhain, the old Celtic festival from which Halloween originated. She gives us insight into the origins of some Halloween customs such as carving Jack-o-lanterns,  trick-or-treating and wearing costumes. 

According to Sarah, Jack-o-lanterns were originally made from turnips rather than pumpkins. They were carved to resemble spirits and were placed at the door to ward off unfriendly ones. Sarah adds that trick-or-treating originated as a practice called “souling”. She says,” it is an example of paganism fusing with Christianity. Those less fortunate would go door to door begging for “soul cakes” – dense buttery cakes with currants, cinnamon, nutmeg and such, which were given as alms during Samhain.” Lastly, Sarah says that “wearing costumes originated from a few different traditions, such as the lair bhan, or ‘white mare’ custom in Ireland, where a person would dress in a white sheet, sometimes with a horse skull on his or her head. In the British isles costuming came from wanting to imitate saints or fearsome spirits to keep from being spirited away by the spirits and fae (fairies) afoot at this time of year. The lair bhan would go door to door with children singing songs and asking for soul cakes, apples, and ale.”

Finally, Sarah also shared some customs that although unfamiliar to those that celebrate Halloween is still practiced by those that celebrate Samhain. For instance, during Samhain people organize silent suppers in remembrance of those deceased and set empty places at the table for their spirits.

Sarah adds ”We also light a candle at the window to invite them in – but only if we have a jack-o-lantern to keep any bad vibes out!”

Nowadays, we know Halloween as carved pumpkins, trick or treating, and frightening costumes, however, these old traditions and origins have contributed to the holiday we commonly celebrate today. Nevertheless, these traditions are kept alive through the passing of culture, such as Sarah, celebrating Samhain as many others still do, to this day. 


Featured image obtained Instagram account fuelledbysunshine

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