The history of Halloween - Coriden Francis: English Tutor

Halloween is one of those festivals mainly children look forward to. October 31st gives us the opportunity to dress up in spooky costumes, have fun trick or treating and generally indulge in a little pumpkin, chocolate and sweet treat fun. 

But it wasn’t always that way. Halloween has a history that goes back centuries and encompasses several ancient festivals – including Roman, Celtic and Christian.

Samhain, the ancient origins of Halloween

For the Celts, Samhain was an opportunity to celebrate their New Year – the end of summer and its associated harvest. Held on November 1st, it was also a day that marked the beginning of the darker part of the year – winter. Celts believe that this was the day when the boundary between the living and dead became blurred and ghosts of the dead could return to earth.

These ghosts could damage the crops and cause all sorts of trouble if they weren’t appeased. So huge sacred bonfires were built to protect them. The druids would burn crops and make animal sacrifices to the Celtic deities. They’d dress in costumes of animal heads and skins, as they gathered around the fire and attempted to make predictions about the future and each other’s fortunes. At the end of the celebration, they’d relight their hearth fires with the sacred bonfire, to help protect them during the winter months.

All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day

On May 13th, 609 AD, the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established. This was later changed to include all saints, The name was changed to All Saints’ Day, and the date was moved to November 1st. It was also known as All Hallows’ Day.  The night before All Saints’ Day was known as All Hallows’ Eve.

As Christianity spread into the Celtic lands, All Saints’ Day was blended in with the Celtic transitions, including Samhain. By 1000 AD, All Souls’ Day was also created to honour the dead – on November 2nd. 

All Souls’ Day was celebrated much like Samhain. There was dressing up, but this time as saints, angels and devils. There were also big bonfires, and it was primarily a day of remembrance and prayer.

Over time, the All Saints’ Day was referred to more often as All Hallows’ Day, whilst the traditional night of Samhain became known as All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. 

Halloween fun and games

So what of the fun activities associated with Halloween? Both Samhain and All Saints’ Day already involved dressing up, so, understandably, this continued. Over time though, the mystic and magic were replaced with lighthearted fun and games. 

Bobbing for apples is said to originate from the Roman festivals combined initially with Samhain. One of the festivals honoured Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees – and the apple was its symbol. Apple bobbing was also a popular fortune-telling game on All Hallows’ Eve. Apples represented the available suitors a woman had, and the one she bit into would represent her future husband.

Trick or treating may have originated from soul cakes. Similar to biscuits, they were initially part of All Souls’ Day. It was a tradition to make and share soul cakes for all christened souls. Groups of children would go around collecting them, in exchange for praying for the dead, often souls of the givers’ friends and relatives. Trick or treating is now used as a way of minimising the risk of being pranked during Halloween – something that became more mainstream in America during the mid-1900s. 

Some of the traditional celebration methods are still enjoyed today. Halloween is the perfect time to get together and have a little fun apple bobbing, singing, dancing and telling each other ghost stories around the bonfire.