Every October 31st, many of us dress up in scary costumes, carve ghoulish pumpkins and send our children trick or treating from door to door. But while Halloween becomes a more and more popular holiday throughout the Western world, these – and many more of its associated rituals – stretch back as far as the middle ages…
There is a general consensus that Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic calendar, particularly with the festival of Samhain. As the harvest came to an end and the nights drew in, the Celts celebrated the end of their year. It was a time of remembering the past and celebrating the cycle of death and rebirth, with many associated rituals and superstitions. The veil between the spiritual world and the human world was considered to be at its thinnest during this time and many believed that spirits would pass back into the human realm. Families would leave food out to appease the spirits and prevent any misfortune when old souls returned to their homes. Fires were lit to guide the souls and ceremonies were performed to honour and remember loved ones who had passed away.
By the 16th century, this time of the year was still dedicated to remembering the dead, and people were dressing up in ghostly costumes and visiting their neighbours, perhaps to collect food on behalf of the spirits. It’s also been suggested that imitating dead souls gave protection from spirits who might have otherwise done harm. Over time, imitating spirits led to people performing mischief and pranks, especially if not given food when going door to door.
This might well be where many Halloween traditions and beliefs originate, but the name of the holiday comes from Christian history. The period of 31st October to 2nd November is All Hallow Tide, a time of the year when dead saints and martyrs are remembered and prayed for. The 31st of October is All Hallows Eve, and is the basis for the modern name of Halloween. During this time, church criers would ring bells to mourn the dead, and ‘soul cakes’ would be given out in return for prayers.
So, even though many of us now use the holiday as an excuse to test our face painting skills and throw a party, Halloween has a rich and colourful history. It has certainly been celebrated and honoured in some form for at least a thousand years and, judging by its current popularity, will continue to be celebrated for a long while to come.