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The Origins Of Halloween

It now marks two days until Halloween and the crossover into festive season. For many of us, Halloween has just become a habitual part of British Culture. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing grimacing pumpkins, creepy webs, eerie ghosts and ghouls plastered all over people’s houses as decorative pieces, and have normalised the practice of fully functioning adults dressing up in spooky costume.

It’s quite bizarre when you think about it; but one cannot deny how fun embracing it’s child-like traditions can be. In the spirit of Halloween I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the origins of the Holiday. Why have we normalised dressing up for one day a year? Where did the practice of bobbing for apples, trick or treating and carving Jack O’Lanterns come from? And lastly how did a dark and pagan tradition become a globally enjoyed light-hearted holiday?

Bonfires And Dressing Up

Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in (what we now recognise as) Ireland celebrated the new year on November 1 rather than January. They believed that a day before the new year ‘the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred’ and ‘the ghosts of the dead returned to earth’ Therefore on the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain. On Samhain, it was believed that the presence of the supernatural in addition to damaging crops and causing havoc, made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests to make prophesies. To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops, animals and humans as sacrifices to the Celtic deities of death. The Celts also wore costumes to disguise themselves amongst the dead, typically consisting of animals heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes which probably have evolved into what we now participate in and view as fun Halloween dress up.

Bobbing Apples

By 42 A.D, the Roman Empire conquered majority of Celtic territory and overtime their festivals and traditions blended with those of Samhain. An example of this is the Roman festival of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain explains the tradition of bopping for apples that is practiced today. By the 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread to Celtic lands where it blended with Celtic rites. November 2 became All Soul’s day, a Christian day to honour the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain with big bonfires, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. All Souls day was also known as All Hallows  and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain became All Hallows eve and eventually Halloween.  

Trick Or Treating

Trick or treating is a fun and customary activity children and youth partake in every Halloween. The term ‘trick or treating’ is relatively new, however the activity can be dated back to All Souls day in 1000 A.D. Poor people would visit the house of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of Homeowners dead relatives. Before the term ‘trick of treating’ was coined this was recognised as ‘souling.’ Children would go from door to door for gifts such as food, money and ale. ‘In Scotland and Ireland young people took part in tradition called guising, dressing up in costume and accepting offerings from various households. Rather than pledging to pray for the dead, they would sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke or perform another sort of trick’ before collecting their treat, which typically consisted of fruit, nuts or coins.

Jack O’Lanterns

The origins of Jack O’Lanterns , is arguably the most interesting of all. The practice originated from an Irish myth of man called “Stingy Jack.” According to the story “Stingy Jack” made a deal with the devil to avoid paying for his drink and blackmailed it into agreeing to leave him alone and not claiming his soul after death. The legend goes, Soon after his death, God would not allow his soul into heaven and because the Devil couldn’t claim it, he was sent into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”

Happy Halloween,

Toluwafe Adesile

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