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Origins of Halloween

Posted on Monday 2 November 2020

Hallowe’en is a shortened form of All Hallows Eve, itself an old-fashioned way of referring to the evening before All Saints’ Day, (which commemorates all the saints of the church). As a Western celebration in modern times Halloween falls on 31 October, but around the world the date and the importance of Halloween varies. For Western Christians it is All Saint’s Day on 1 November, followed by All Souls’ Day (a day to remember all those who have died), which have most religious significance. In Spain, Mexico and Latin America All Soul’s Day is most widely celebrated but on 5 November. And for Eastern Christian churches All Hallows Eve is 4-5 months earlier in the year, as All Saints’ Day is the first Sunday after Pentecost. Evidence suggests that the move to 1 November for All Saints’ Day, and therefore the following All Souls’ Day (collectively Allhallowtide), was not made by Western Christian churches until the 9th Century. So it should follow that Halloween ‘began’ here, and yet it is not quite as simple as this!

The Gaelic festival of Samhain is observed 31 October to 1 November and is thought to have Celtic Pagan origins, which is a wee bit earlier than the 9th Century, or even the 5th Century when All Saints’ Day is first recorded as being observed in its original position in May. It marks the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter. Historically it was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Indeed there are many important events in Irish mythology that begin during Samhain. And there are other Celtic festivals such as Calan Gaeaf (in Wales) and Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall, and also known as Saint Allan’s Day) that are celebrated on 31 October.

So what does this mean for the modern traditions of Halloween that some of us may follow today? From the 16th Century onwards, at least, the tradition of going door-to-door in costume, reciting poems or songs in return for food, was recorded. And in Scotland young men went house-to-house in masks threatening to ‘do mischief’ if not welcomed. So perhaps it is this that might be the origin of the trick-or-treat?

And yet, from Medieval times up until the 1930s many Christians in England (mostly children) would go door to door singing songs and saying prayers in exchange for ‘soul cakes’ (and this is still practised in some places today) as part of the observance of All Souls’ Day. Perhaps this is the origin of the giving of a treat?

If you look into the many traditions of Halloween such as hollowing out vegetables, lighting lamps, dressing in disguise (or is that dressing as saints?), going door-to-door for mischief or for prayer, giving out treats or soul cakes, and so on, you’ll find there are roots in our history too far back for us to definitively pin with certainty the origin of any of the modern traditions for celebrating Halloween. And indeed, as an evening that precedes days of such religious significance for some it is certainly not celebrated by everyone. But what seems clear, in 2020 at least, is that the most common modern tradition of trick-or-treating cannot happen as usual because of the greater need to keep our distance and therefore safe during a pandemic. Traditions will have to evolve again in order that Halloween can continue to be celebrated by those that want to.

This year, locally at least, there will be a ‘Halloween Hunt’ which replaces knocking on doors for trick-or-treat. Anyone willing to participate as a destination on the trail agrees to put out as little as a carved pumpkin up to more extravagant decorations. And those wishing to participate in the hunt simply agree not to knock at doors, but download the map and plan their route to see as much of the trail as they want. Our family has decided to do both, so we’ll have a pumpkin out and decorations up all day 31 October, and we’ll take our own sweets with us as we walk the trail, filling our pumpkin bag ourselves every time we spot a decorated house.

It is also perfectly possible to keep Halloween celebrations indoors only, for anyone who does not want to follow a trail. I have seen suggestions of decorating the house just inside, having a Halloween themed tea party, holding a creepy movie night, having a costume competition between families by video call, in fact so many ideas that I couldn’t possibly list them all. And I wonder if, in years to come, some of the adaptations we will make this year will continue on, and become part of the complicated woven fabric of Halloween traditions.

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