A Brief History of Halloween

by A.D Paterson on 24/10/2010

Halloween is one of those events during the year that most people look forward to, but how many of them know the real story behind this yearly ritual?

In this article we’re going to have a look at what Halloween is, where it all started, and what it means in today’s society.

Halloween is celebrated in many countries on the 31st of October, and is generally seen as a time for going out in costume, knocking on the doors of their neighbours, and asking them for a treat or they’ll play a trick on you – how that is not classed as preadolescent extortion is unclear, but few seem to carry out their threats.

It has also become a day for the telling of ghost stories, watching of horror movies, going to the dentist, and other such scary things.

Where did it all begin?

It is thought to have come from a combination of an old a Gaelic festival called Samhain (from the old Irish samain, samuin, or samfuin, loosely meaning ‘summer’s end’) and the All Saints’ Day holiday. With the end of summer festival falling on the 31st of October and All Saints’ Day on the 1st of November.

The Samhain was a Harvest Festival (of pagan origin) which tended to include hymns, singing, praying, and some of the produce i.e. baskets of fruit, being used to help decorate the churches. This is seen as a way of giving thanks for getting through another season. This was vital because their harvests, probably more so than today, were what kept them alive.

Samhain also appears to have a lot of similarities to the Festival of the Dead which is a tradition held by many cultures around the world, and is to honour the deceased members of the community.

All Saints’ Day is a day in the Christian calendar which celebrates, oddly enough, all of the saints. There are no distinctions made between how well known a particular saint is, or how obscure they may be, it honours them all.
Both celebrations seem to exist quite happily together, even though one of them has its roots in the pre-Christian pagan lore of the land.

The name Halloween seems to have changed a number of times down through the centuries with the present version may have appeared as early as the 16th century. All are a corruption of All-Hallows-Even (“evening”), and refer to the evening before All Hallows’ Day. All Hallows’ Day is just another name for All Saints’ Day and dates back to around 1556.

Now, and here’s where things may have got confused, there is also a day called All Souls’ Day. All Souls’ Day is celebrated on the 2nd of November and is virtually a Christian version of the Festival of the Dead.

With all of these fairly similar events all falling within consecutive days it’s quite easy to see how Halloween might have taken on its present association with giving, and its connection with the dead, after all, they were also celebrating the ‘death’ of one season (the “lighter half”) before moving into the new season (the “darker half”).

What do all of these centuries of celebration and tradition mean to us today?

Well, for the most part, not a great deal. The days when we gave thanks because our crops didn’t fail have pretty much gone. Some can be grown all year round, and, if anything catastrophic does happen we just import them from somewhere else.

People honour the dead in many ways, so having a specific day for it would seem alien to most of us. So the only original tradition that may still be valid for people today is the religious one.

There we have our quick trip through history and tradition.

We’ve seen that the evening before All Hallows’ Day goes back to at least the 16th century. We know that there was a pagan harvest festival celebrated on that day. We have looked at how the nightmarish image of Halloween may have come from similarities to the Festival of the Dead and All Souls’ Day. Plus, last but not least, we’ve seen that not all forms of extortion are frowned upon.

So get out there and have a spooky Halloween.

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