The Origins of Halloween Festivities



Halloween has been described as 'a perfect example of superstition struggling with religious belief'.  We may all be aware of it - but how many of us know the origins of the annual activities of the 31st October.

Halloween dates back over 2000  years, to the ancient Celtic festival 'Samhain'.   The 31st October was the Celts' New Year's Eve, as they celebrated the end of the 'season of the sun' before the 'season of darkness'  started on the 1st November (their New Year's Day).  The Celts believed that evil spirits came with the darkness and that on the 31st October the barriers between our world and the spirit world, were at their weakest.

The Catholic Church made the 1st November, the church holiday for All Saints Day in 835 AB, when all saints are remembered.   (The 2nd November is All Souls Day, when the church remembers all those who have died).  'Hallows' is an old word for Saint, hence the 31st October became All Hallows Eve, then Halloween.

Many of the Halloween activities we take part in today, are a mixture of pagan and Christian traditions, with the season of harvest thrown in too.  The original Celtic bonfires which were burnt to frighten the spirits away have now become all the candles we light, particularly in pumpkin lanterns (Apparently 99% of all pumpkins sold are for use as these Jack O Lanterns).

It is thought that orange and black have become the colours of Halloween because orange is the colour of harvest  and black the colour of death.  Games such as apple bobbing and snap apples also became popular due to the abundance of apples at this time of year.

Dressing up also has ancient roots.  When people thought this was the time ghosts came back to earth, they would wear masks if they left their homes that night so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.

'Trick or Treating' has become much more common in recent years, but it too has medieval origins.  To keep ghosts away from their houses people would place bowls of food outside  their doors.  'Souling' was another medieval European tradition.  People would call at homes asking  for soul cakes in return for praying for the souls of the donor's deceased relatives.

Halloween has undoubtedly become a bigger celebration in the last decade, with retailers selling costumes, decorations and accessories, but this success has brought reservations too.  Some parents have concerns about their young children out on the street in the dark, or that youngsters may take things too far and make a nuisance of themselves.  And Although many Christians celebrate it happily, others see Halloween as a danger, flirting with the power of darkness and the occult.