Monday, 13 October 2014

The Origins of Halloween


Ray Bradbury described the atmospheric month of October perfectly with the prologue to his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. He wrote: “And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling, and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.”

The most anticipated part of the month comes at the very end, leaving children and adults alike on their toes for weeks. They wait, partaking in a long tradition of reveling in spooky tales, wild superstitions, and ghastly creatures until finally dressing up and trick-or-treating on Halloween night.

But how did such a peculiar holiday come to be?

Well, like all holidays, it started as a holy day.

Halloween’s roots date back to pre-Christian times. The Gaelic peoples in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man celebrated the pagan festival of Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”). This holiday marked the end of summer and the onset of winter. It was also a day that rejoiced in the plentiful harvest that would sustain their peoples during winter. But above all those things, it was a mystical time of year, a time when spirits and faeries could easily move between worlds, entering our own. Dark spirits wanted to possess and torment the living. To frighten them off, the Celts dressed up as monsters and illuminated the night with fire. But not all spirits were sinister. The Celts also set their tables with an extra plate to welcome the souls of lost loved ones. As much as the pagans feared the holiday, they embraced it with the bonfires, guising, and sacrificial offerings their spirituality demanded.

Then the Romans came along.

During their four-century reign over the Celts, two Roman festivals seemingly replaced - or at least complemented - Samhain. One commemorated the passing of the dead, Feralia, and the other celebrated the Roman goddess of fruit and nuts, Pomona. Not only was the supernatural element kept, but as was the one of harvest. In fact, Pomona’s symbol was the apple, and many believe that it was what inspired “bobbing for apples.” But again, times change.

In the medieval era, the Roman Catholic Church was looking for ways to spread the good word and convert pagans. In order to do so, Pope Gregory IV made All Hallow’s Eve the same day as Samhain. At least, according to popular belief. And, of course, new traditions became custom while some old ones remained.

Across Europe, church bells rang for souls in purgatory. Criers clad in black would ring a bell in the streets, asking for Christians to pray for those stuck in spiritual limbo. An event known as souling (the baking and sharing of soul cakes for christened souls) began around this time, which many believe to be the origin of trick-or-treating. The impoverished - mainly children - would go door-to-door, acquiring soul cakes as a means to pray for those in purgatory. Also associated with purgatory, it seems, are the jack-o-lanterns, their inner light said to be a spirit trapped between Heaven and Hell, wandering the earth, protecting guisers from diabolical ghosts who arose from their graves one night a year to cling to their earthly ways.

Evolving still, the holiday made its way overseas, reaching North America through immigration. As cultures mixed in the new world, the customs transformed yet again to the modernized ones we practice now. For example, “trick-or-treat” had been coined in the 1900s; the earliest printed reference of the phrase appearing in Alberta in 1927. The “trick” aspect was added along with the “treat” when the day served as a means for mischief and vandalism. Interestingly, trick-or-treating was even banned during World War II due to sugar rations, however its popularity resurged during the baby boom shortly thereafter.

As we can see, Halloween has come a long way from souls and sacrifices being quite literally embraced. However, remnants of the old ways still linger, playfully interwoven with the threads of our modern tapestry. Undoubtedly, All Hallow’s Eve will change yet again, but it seems for certain that ghosts of the past will stay to haunt us with a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.


  1. I absolutely love Halloween. It has always been my favorite time of the year. Nice post, Larysia. Always fun to talk about the origins of things and see where traditions come from!

    1. Halloween is my favorite time of year, too! I wish October lasted much longer! Thank you so much for reading. Very glad you enjoyed it!