The History Of Halloween

Ella Pilson

There’s something unique about Halloween. As the days darken and temperature begins to drop we all find comfort in the autumnal colours, warming cinnamon beverages and cosy evenings filled with scary movies. But have you ever actually thought about why we carve pumpkins or where some of our favourite Halloween traditions originated? Ella Pilson talks us through the history of Halloween.

Halloween has become a mixing bowl for different cultures, rituals and traditions. It was first been attributed to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. This was celebrated on the 1st of November (the Celtic new year) between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice, marking the end of summer. It was believed that on this night the boundary between the living and the dead became blurred, with ghosts being able to return to earth. In this ritual, costumes would be worn and bonfires would be lit to ward off evil spirits. Druids and other folk would fortell fortunes for the year ahead and celebrate the cycle of life.

Fire is symbolic of life and light against death and decay. There is also mythological precedent; fire in the form of the sun combating demons in the underworld and guiding spirits on their path to heaven. Traditions such as trick or treating also stem from Samhain, where members of the community would pull pranks on one another and blame them on mischievous spirits.

Later, this festival was adopted by the church on ‘All Souls’ Day’ where they would commemorate those that have died. It was common for poorer members of the community to give out ‘soul cakes’ and wear masks as disguises. As a sign of goodwill, people would also give out sweet treats to children from their neighbourhood.

People started to carve demonic faces out of turnips to scare away Jack’s ghost

But why do we actually carve pumpkins?

In the dark shadows, do you ever see a medieval drunken blacksmith hobbling down the street? It’s probably ‘Stingy Jack’. This was a tale told in Ireland of an manipulative man who tried to deceive the devil. It is said that when he died, he was allowed neither in heaven nor hell and was condemned to roam the earth for eternity. According to legend he had a coal inside a carved out turnip to light his way, hence people carved out turnips or large beets and put candles in them to imitate his shade. It was only in the 1800s as more people left to live in America that turnips were replaced by pumpkins, being much easier to grow and native to the country. So, why not try to carve a turnip this year?

One of the traditions that has been lost over time is that of fortune-telling. In the past, Halloween was actually associated with the future. Particularly for women, it was thought they could predict their luck in finding a husband during the year ahead. In Scotland, women would toss apple peels over their shoulder hoping it would form the initials of their future husband. This is also where apple bobbing comes from – the winner being the next one to marry, good spirits bringing them luck.

But recently, have we gone Halloween mad? One quarter of all sweets sold in America is bought during Halloween. In 2021, Americans spent nearly $500 million on costumes for their pets!

On the other hand, the traditional Halloween focus in autumn is this year being replaced by the ‘pumpkin spice’ trend on TikTok. Particularly for teenagers who have become receptive to creating this autumn vibe, drinking hot chocolate out of pumpkin shaped mugs, wearing thick woollen jumpers and listening to mellow indie music. Thus we have to ask, should our Halloween celebrations be moderated? Should we revive more of these traditions rather than focusing on consumer excess?

Ella Pilson

Featured image courtesy of David Menidrey via Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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