Spooky season: What is the origin of Halloween in Britain?

With Halloween upon us in a couple of days I thought why not delve back into the history of the ghoulish tradition.

The origins of Halloween date back all the way to the Celts who lived 2,000 years ago mostly in the area that is now Ireland, the UK and Northern France. The ancient Celts celebrated their New Year on 1st November with this day marking the end of summer and the beginning of the dark and cold winter. This time was associated with human death and the Celts believed that on the night before New Year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.

On the night of 31st October they celebrated Samhain… A pagan Celtic festival, pronounced sow-in and derived from the Old Irish (Gaelic) for ‘summer’s end’.

It was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to Earth which made it easier for Druids or Celtic priests to make predictions about the future with these prophecies being an important source of comfort during the long, dark winter.

To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During this celebration, Celts wore costumes typically consisting of animal heads and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.

When the celebration was over they re-lit their hearth fires which they had extinguished earlier that evening from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. During the 400 years they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origins were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. First – Feralia: a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. Second – a day to honour Pomona: the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, the symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of bobbing for apples.

Romans moved out of Britain in the early 5th Century and a new set of conquerors began to move in. Saxons raided England’s south and east coasts. The native Celtic tribes were pushed to the northern and western extremes of Britain to present day Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Cumbria and the Isle of Man.

The decades that followed saw Christianity arriving and spreading inwards from those northern and western extremities from the early Celtic Church and up from Kent with the arrival of Saint Augustine from Rome in 597.

Along with the Christians arrived Christian Festivals, amongst them “All Hallows’ Day” also known as “All Saints Day”, a day to remember those who had died for their beliefs. Remembering saints and martyrs and dedicating a specific day to them each year had been a Christian tradition since the 4th century AD. However, it wasn’t until 609 A.D (7th century) that Pope Boniface IV decided to remember all martyrs. On 13th May 609 A.D., Pope Boniface dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honour of all Christian martyrs and the Catholic feast of All Matyrs Day was established in the Western church.

Later in 837 A.D. Pope Gregory IV extended the festival to remember all saints as well as martyrs, changed its name to Feast of All Saints and changed the date from 13th May to 1st November. It is supsected that this was to obscure the pagan characteristics of Samhain which also fell on 1st November.

All Saints’ Day was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas. The night before (the traditional night of Samhain) therefore became known as All-Hallows-Eve then eventually Halloween.

By 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands where it gradually blended with and supplanted older Celtic rites.

In 1000 A.D, the church made 2nd November All Souls’ Day, a day to honour the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain with big bonfires, parades, dressing up and is thought to be an attempt by the church to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, church-sanctioned holiday.

The feast of All Hallows’ celebrated over a period of 3 days from 31st October to 2nd November (ending in All Souls’ Day) collectively known as Allhallowtide.

By the late 12th century many Europeans expected to attend Mass during the feast days of Allhallowtide while the town bellmen dressed in black mournfully sounded their bells to remind the Christians of the departed souls.

The modern celebration of Halloween is a complicated mix of evolved traditions and influences.

A quick little insight into the history of Trick or treating

In the 11th century people would say poems or sing songs in exchange for food with these traditions evolving into children saying prayers in return for ‘soul cakes’. Soul cakes were similar to hot cross buns and were intended to represent a spirit being freed from purgatory when eaten.

Souling on Halloween

Just before All Souls’ Day on 2nd November, poorer members of society would go from door to door, receiving food (often pastries or specially baked ‘soul cakes’) in return for their promise to pray for the household’s dead relatives. These practices were encouraged by the church and became known as ‘going a souling’.

Traditions of dressing up also became likened to the custom particularly in Scotland where it was known as ‘guising’. Dressing up had its roots in superstition as people wore masks or costumes to either avoid being recognised or to placate spirits that they believed crossed into the physical world at this time of year.

By 19th century this had evolved into a tradition where children would sing songs, tell jokes and read poems instead of prayers for pieces of fruit and money. The custom of ‘trick or treat’ originated in England as ‘Mischief Night’ when children declared one ‘lawless night’ of unpunished pranks.

In the late 19th century, the Irish belief that ‘the little people’ or fairies played pranks on Halloween led boys and young men to carry out practical jokes on that night. Later, children would play threatening pranks on people to get them to hand over sweets.

The term trick or treating wasn’t used until the 1920s, when it was adopted in America.

Irish trick or treating (Guising)

Jack O’Lantern origins

The practice of carving Jack O’Lanterns goes back to the Irish legend of Jack, a lazy but shrewd farmer who tricked the Devil into a tree then refused to let the Devil down unless the Devil agreed to never let Jack into Hell. The story goes that the Devil agreed but when Jack died he was too sinful to be allowed into Heaven and the Devil wouldn’t let him into Hell. So Jack carved out one of his turnips, put a candle inside it and began endlessly wandering the Earth for a resting place.

During Samhain children carried lanterns made out of hollow turnips and went to homes to ask for treats. People would also carve turnips to ward off spirits from getting into their houses

When Irish immigrants settled in America in the 1840s they couldn’t find turnips to carve and instead used pumpkins.

The original folklore version of a Jack O’Lantern carved from a turnip

The origins of Halloween are possibly older than the very concept of Satan in Christianity… So how ever you are celebrating Halloween this year keep in mind the long ancient history of the Celtic celebration.

Spooky side note: There will be a full moon on Halloween and not just a full moon but a rare blue moon. A blue moon is what you call the second full moon in one month. It will also be the first time a Halloween full moon will be visible across the whole world since 1944. A full moon on Halloween occurs roughly once every 19 years – a pattern known as the Metonic Cycle. According to astronomers, the next Halloween full moons will be in the years 2039, 2058, 2077 and 2096.

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