When most people think of Halloween they envision pumpkins, fancy dress costumes, and scary movies. But very few know how this popular holiday began.
It all started as a Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced sow’inn). The festival would be held on November 1st each year and it was believed that the night before the festival, the dead would return as ghosts.
People would leave food and wine on their doorsteps to keep spirits at bay. They’d also wear masks when they left the house so that they’d be mistaken for fellow ghosts. Formal ceremonies would often be held around a large bonfire, with locals burning crops and animals as sacrifices.
All Saints Day
In the 800s AD, the early Church of England designated 1st November as ‘All Saints Day’ to honor saints and martyrs. Led by Pope Boniface IV, the church labelled 31st October as ‘All Hallows Eve’.
All Souls Day
Approximately 200 years later, the church made 2nd November ‘All Souls’ Day’, a day to honour the dead. In a similar way to the original Samhain festival, it would involve big bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes. Costumes of saints, angels and devils were most popular.
Souling and Guising
We’re all too familiar with the ‘trick or treating’ phenomenon and although it’s a modern tradition, its roots could be dated back to Medieval Britain. Many historians believe it was inspired by two popular trends ‘souling’ and ‘guising’.
On 2nd November each year, the poor would beg for pastries and food and in return, they would pray for other people’s dead relatives. This was known as ‘souling’.
Guising involved telling jokes and performing tricks while wearing fancy dress costumes. In exchange, these people were given food and money.
Taking Halloween to America
As Europeans began to move to America, they took their favourite Halloween traditions with them. Over time, these traditions merged together and a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. At first, festivities often involved celebrating the harvest, telling each other’s fortunes, sharing ghost stories, dancing and singing.
Eventually, Halloween took its current form and the tradition of wearing costumes, trick or treating, watching scary movies and carving pumpkins became commonplace. Although Halloween’s origins began in Europe, you could argue that America helped it become what it is today.
Considering how much Halloween has changed over the centuries, it’s interesting to imagine how this popular autumn festival will continue to evolve as time goes by. Fifty years from now, will we still be telling ghost stories and bobbing for apples or will we have adopted completely different traditions instead?