The Origins of Halloween

Shadow of a halloween glass lantern over newspaper, taken for Macro Mondays' theme for 2 Nov 2015 - "Shadow Play"

Whether you love or loathe it, it’s undeniable that Halloween is one of the most widely celebrated and commercialised festivities of the year. But have you ever stopped to consider how the holiday emerged into what it is today? How did Halloween begin and where did all the myths, legends and folklore associated with Halloween gain so much ground?

An American Tradition: Keep a Jack O’ Lantern lit on the evening of Hallow’s Eve to ward of any and all “spirits”

Halloween is thought to have originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, a pagan ritual where people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1st, which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. They believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.

“The holiday was known as All Saints’ Day”

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III chose November 1st as a time to honour all saints and martyrs. The holiday was known as All Saints’ Day and incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain, such as bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The night before was known as ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ and later, Halloween. It is thought that this celebration was the church’s attempt to replace the Celtic celebration of the dead with a related religious holiday.

Apple Bobbing anyone?…

After the Roman’s conquered the majority of Celtic territory, their traditional festivals were combined with the Celtic celebration of Samhain. These included Feralia, a day in late October which commemorated the dead, and a day to honour Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, so this is probably where the practice of apple bobbing comes from.

As well as the history of Halloween itself, there exist many Halloween legends bearing dark and interesting origins. One of the most well-known, terror-induced legends is of Bloody Mary, one that is not only prevalent during Halloween but all year round. For those unfamiliar with the legend, chanting the name ‘Bloody Mary’ thirteen times in front of a mirror will supposedly summon a howling woman drenched in blood, who will haunt and wound her victims. The legend of Bloody Mary emerged from British folklore in the 1700s. According to the tale, a young and beautiful girl named Mary had a terrible accident which caused disfigurement to her face. She had previously spent long hours staring at her reflection in the mirror, but after the accident, she was forbidden to look at herself in the mirror for fear that she may go insane.

“. . . chanting the name ‘Bloody Mary’ thirteen times in front of a mirror will supposedly summon a howling woman drenched in blood”

Another variation of the story is that Mary Worth was a witch, who lived over 100 years and faced execution for her apparent crimes in the Salem Witch Trials. Despite these stories, there is much contention about the identity of Bloody Mary. Some have attributed her to Mary I, who was nicknamed Bloody Mary due to her mass executions of Protestants during her reign. Queen Mary also suffered from two phantom pregnancies and was unable to bear children, which is where the phrase of ‘I killed your baby’ comes from in the game.

Alongside the popular legend of Bloody Mary is the superstition surrounding Friday 13th. The date is considered to be one of the most unlucky days of the year, and this superstition is thought to have come about in the Middle Ages. There is evidence that the fear has biblical origins; some historians have claimed that it was the day Eve bit the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, it was the day of the Great Flood, and the day that Jesus was crucified.

“This myth was popularised by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code

Also, on Friday 13th in 1307 hundreds of Knights of Templar (a monastic military order) were arrested and burnt across France by King Philip IV. This myth was popularised by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, where he cites the execution of Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay. There’s no denying that lots of unfortunate events have happened on Friday 13th throughout history, which has only emboldened the power of the legend.

So, as you’re putting together your fancy dress costume, apprehensively carving your pumpkin and trying not to chop your fingers off, or eating your weight in Haribos, remember that Halloween is not just a ridiculous, superstitious day, but withholds a rather long and significant history well worth knowing.

Sophie Hunt

Feautred image courtesy of aotaro via Flickr

Article images courtesy of Beth Day and Adam Cutler via Flickr

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