Trick-or-treat, pumpkin carving, costumes: Halloween is full of strange customs. Where do these odd traditions come from and what exactly are we celebrating?

Halloween origins

The Wicker Man–Pagan Masks
Image from The Wicker Man

Like the majority of our holidays, Halloween has its roots in Paganism, particularly the festival of Samhain—when the souls of the loved and long-dead came home.

The celebration was held at the end of October—as the leaves turned to autumn colours and the end of summer was heralded.

Halloween became popular with the rise of spiritualism, when people began to question themselves and what they believed in. As Christianity began to spread, pagan festivals were introduced to the religion in order to ease the Celts' transition from one beliefs system to another. Therefore, it's the Irish we have to thank for spreading the tradition of Halloween. Americans may have popularised the modern-day holiday, but early American settlers were dubious of the Paganistic values Halloween celebrates.

The Christian triduum of Allhallowtide consists of All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day (running from the 31st October–2nd November). This period is a time to remember the dead, including martyrs, saints, and all faithful departed Christians. 

 

Costumes and spirits

The Addams Family - Costumes
Image from The Addams Family (1991)

The ghosts and ghouls floating around our neighbourhoods hark back to the myths of the dead returning home. Masks and costumes were worn to ward off evil spirits.

Costumes also take some of their history from the Celtic druids. The ancient Celtic priests would wear the heads of particular animals to gain the strength of that animal, for example, Herne the Hunter, a legendary ghost from Ancient Britain wore antlers on his head.

Medieval Catholicism has a part to play in the history of Halloween dress-up. Poor churches unable to afford religious iconography, would ask their parish to dress up as patron saints on All Saints' Day and act out scenes in the churchyard, with others playing angels and demons.

 

Trick-or-treat

The Little Rascals Halloween special
Image from The Little Rascals

The custom of trick-or-treating derives from the practice of offering gifts to undead spirits in order to appease them, however, Catholicism also creeps into this tradition.

On All Souls' Day, it became common for poor children to go begging for traditional soul cake. Children would beg door to door in exchange for praying for the souls of the giver’s dead relatives.

 

Pumpkins and candles

Pumpkin head from Return to Oz
Image of Pumpkinhead from Return to Oz

Of course the Devil plays a part in Halloween, giving us the tradition of pumpkin carving and lighting.

Legend has it, that after a life of meanness and mischief, an old coot named Jack was forced to roam the earth forever as a ghost. His only company was a pumpkin lit with a burning coal—hence the name Jack O’Lantern.

However, much more likely is the ancient Irish tradition of carving out a turnip to ward off spirits. When early Irish settlers arrived in America, they found pumpkins were much easier to carve out. 

 

Witches

Bedknobs and broomsticks witch
Image from Bedknobs and Broomsticks

The figure of the crinkly old woman comes from the pagan Goddess, 'The Crone'—a wise woman who was worshipped during the period Samhain. She symbolised the change and the turning of the season. 

Witches gained a bad reputation with the rise of Christianity. Often misrepresented and feared, witches were, in fact, intelligent women.

 

Halloween is one of our most enjoyable celebrations. It's amazing to think how heavily influenced it is by our ancestors and their ancestors before them—all of whom will no doubt come-a-visiting this Samhain!

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