When most people think of Halloween, they think of trick-or-treating, scary costumes and carving pumpkins to make lanterns. But the origins of this annual tradition can actually be traced back to Celtic times, over 2,000 years ago.
An annual festival marking the beginning of winter and the Celtic New Year, called Samhain, was celebrated by the Celts from the 31st October until the 1st November. The Celts were a group of people who lived across most of Europe during the Iron Age, which began in 800 BC.
The Celts held an ancient belief that the boundaries between the living and the dead became blurred on one day of the year – the 31st October. They believed that ghosts would roam the earth at night. The Celts used to leave food and drink on the doorstep of their homes as offerings to these otherworldly visitors.
In the 7th century, Christianity became the dominating faith and there was an annual celebration called All Hallows Day. The word ‘hallow’ means a saint or holy person and the purpose of this day was to give thanks for the lives of saints.
In 837AD, Pope Gregory IV stated that All Hallows Day should be celebrated on the 1st November, as it originally took place in May. The intention behind this change was to marginalise the Celtic Pagan faith and replace it with Christianity.
Over time, the Celtic festival of Samhain was indeed overshadowed by the Christian celebration of All Hallows Day. The evening of the 31st October became known as “All-hallows-even” then “Hallowe’en”.
Did you know?
- The three creatures which typically symbolise Halloween are bats, black cats and spiders, as they were all thought to be associated with witches during the Middle Ages.
- The festival of Samhain sparked the idea of wearing costumes at Halloween. During Samhain, Celts used to dress up and wear masks to confuse evil spirits who they believed would be looking for humans.
- The traditional colours of orange and black are symbolic of Halloween. Orange typically represents the harvest and autumn time, when the leaves on the trees are changing colour. Black is normally linked to death and darkness.
- The largest pumpkin ever measured was grown by Norm Craven. His mammoth pumpkin broke the world record in 1993, topping the scales at nearly 60 stone!
- An American holds the record for the world’s fastest pumpkin carving time: 16.47 seconds. Stephen Clarke completed the amazing feat during Halloween 2013 at a Jack-o’-lantern carving competition. The rules stated that the pumpkin must weigh less than 24 pounds and needed at least eyes, nose, ears and a mouth.
- The origins of trick-or-treating date back to the early 9th century, when poor beggars would knock at houses for a biscuit called a soul cake (a type of shortbread). In return for one of these cakes, a prayer would be said for the deceased relatives of that household.
- The famous magician Harry Houdini died on Halloween night in 1926 as a result of appendicitis, said to have been brought on by three stomach punches.
- Halloween is the second most popular celebration after Christmas and continues to grow. In the UK a decade ago, consumer spending on Halloween totalled £12m. It has now become an industry worth over £300m.
- The last 4 people to be sentenced to death for witchcraft in England were Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edward and Mary Trembles in 1682 and Alice Molland in 1685. The first three women, from Devon, were dubbed “The Bideford Three” and were charged with sorcery on the basis of accusations. Today, this would be dismissed as malicious gossip or hearsay.
- Halloween is also known as All Hallows’ Day, All Saints Day, Hallowmas, Feast of All Saints and Solemnity of All Saints.
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