The festival of Halloween in the UK is over 2000 years old, dating back to the time of the Celts (600 BC-50 AD). The Celts celebrated the end of summer and the gathering in of the harvest with a festival called ‘Samhain’, which took place on the night of 31 October. Even then, this date had links with ghosts and the spirit world, as on this night the Celts believed that the boundaries between our world and the next would weaken, allowing the souls of dead to cross over and communicate with the living. A large part of the celebration involved the building of huge bonfires, which were thought to welcome friendly spirits and ancestors, but ward off those considered dangerous. People would dress up in animal heads and skins, and burn sacrifices and gifts in thanks for the harvest.
Samhain was also a time for divination and the telling of fortunes. Apples feature widely in these divination techniques. For example, when bobbing for apples, a tradition that still survives until today, the first person to take a bite out of an apple would be the first to marry that year. In addition, when peeling an apple, the longer the unbroken length of peel, the longer you would be destined to live.
Following the invasion of the Romans in 43 AD, two Roman festivals came to be celebrated at the same time as Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day in which they honoured Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees who was symbolized by the apple. The Romans were very open to the cultures of people they invaded, and they sought to merge their beliefs with those of the indigenous Celts. It is perhaps easy to see why these two festivals became linked closely with Samhain.
Christianity had spread into Celtic lands by the 800s and the Christian church appears to have practiced its usual policy of adopting pagan celebrations by converting Halloween into a Christian observance. By moving the old Christian festival of All Saints Day to 1 November, however, they maintained the link with remembering the dead. On All Saints Day, a mass was held to honour the saints and martyrs, and this was preceded on the day before (All Hallow’s Eve or Eve of All Saints – in Old English, hallow meant holy) by an overnight vigil. According to the early Christian church, this day also marked the release from purgatory of all souls for 2 days. All Souls Day, which commemorated the faithful departed, followed on 2 November. Together, the three festivals – the Eve of All Saints, All Saints Day and All Souls Day – became known as Hallowmass.
The custom of ‘trick-or-treating’, today a large part of Halloween celebrations, could possibly have part of its roots in the tradition of the baking of soul cakes. This was an important feature of All Souls’ Day (similar to the way we associate hot cross buns with Good Friday today), when beggars would wander from house to house, receiving gifts of food and money. In return for a soul cake, these ‘soulers’ would be expected to say prayers for those who had recently died, to speed up their passage through purgatory and into heaven. The ‘trick’ part of the custom appears to have arisen in the USA in the 1930s, where Halloween became to be associated with the playing of pranks and jokes.
Although the Church was successful in establishing Hallowmass as a Christian festival, many of the populace continued to practice the ancient customs and traditions linked with Samhain. With the reformation of the Church in the 16th century, celebrations of this sort were discouraged even more. However, following the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 many traditional Halloween practices, especially the building of bonfires, were transposed to 5 November (now known as Bonfire or Guy Fawkes Night). Although in England the celebration of Halloween gradually fell out of fashion in favour of Bonfire Night, the tradition was maintained for longer in both Ireland and Scotland, because of the strong Celtic links in these countries.
The resurgence in the celebration of Halloween that we have seen over the past 20 years or so, with its emphasis on dressing up as ghosts and witches, has largely been imported from the USA. Halloween and its more pagan traditions were first brought to the USA in the mid-1800s, when huge numbers of Irish immigrants fled to the USA following the Irish Potato Famine. Over time, the festival and its traditions evolved and crossed back over the Atlantic – giving us the celebration that we know and love (or hate!) today.
The celebration that we today know as Halloween dates back to an ancient festival of the Celts – Samhain. Despite the passing of 2000 years, it is still possible to trace some of the traditions we associate with Halloween – bonfires, and the link with ghosts and the spirit world – back to this early celebration of the end of summer and the gathering in of the harvest.