Second to Christmas, Halloween is one of the most anticipated holidays in many countries around the world. But where did it originate? What are its ties to paganism and the festival of Samhain? And why do we go trick-or-treating?
Don your witch’s hat and fear not the reaper. Today we’re embarking on a journey backward through time, to discover the eerie origins of our spookiest holiday…
Halloween’s Pagan Roots: Samhain
As with many modern festivals (Christmas included), Halloween has its roots in ancient pagan tradition. Long before Christianity came to the British Isles, Celtic people celebrated a festival called Samhain to mark the end of the harvest season (the Gaelic “Samhain” roughly translates to “summer’s end.”)
Though few concrete details are known about ancient Samhain, many scholars also believe this festival marked the start of a new year for the Celts.
During the festival of Samhain, the line between the world of the living and the spiritual became a blurry one, allowing spirits to interact with the living. People lit bonfires at the edge of fields to ward off the encroaching darkness. This practice persisted well into the Middle Ages, with young boys in Wales and Scotland running from bonfire to bonfire with torches.
Samhain was particularly popular in Ireland. In fact, much of our knowledge of the ancient festival comes from records of Irish folk history. We know that at least two gods were associated with Samhain: Crom Cruach (possibly a fertility god) and Morrigan. But if one deity presided over Samhain it was definitely Morrigan — the goddess of war and death.
Folk tales claimed that Morrigan walked the Earth during Samhain. And lest Morrigan take them before their time, people painted faces on root vegetables and wore masks to disguise themselves. Pretty intense stuff!
Origins of Halloween Traditions: Dressing up, pranks, and “souling”
Our contemporary celebration of Halloween, however, springs from more cultural wells than one.
Across the world, Halloween is synonymous with people dressing up as characters from horror movies, ghost stories, and pop culture. But this practice isn’t as ancient as you might think. In fact, dressing up for Halloween dates back to the Victorian era. Costume parties were all the rage back then, and society women had gowns designed to mimic animals, insects, or creatures of the night. We can see why it caught on.
Meanwhile, the tradition of playing pranks dates all the way back to Samhain. Young children took the opportunity to deface their neighbor’s property, pull down fences, and engage in all sorts of mischief. To avoid consequences, they’d then blame the fairies for the mess.
One ancient tradition that’s been lost in the modern Halloween tradition is that of leaving food for the dead. This was to encourage any wandering spirits to take their fill and leave, rather than entering in. Food nonetheless still plays an important role on Halloween. Apples, for instance, often feature in games such as apple-bobbing, where a bowl is filled with water and apples. Players are invited to remove the apples using only their teeth. This has proven a popular harvest festival activity over the centuries. Its association with Halloween probably emerged as other harvest festivals died out and Halloween became the dominant one.
And what about the ultimate symbol of Halloween — carved pumpkins, or “Jack-o’-Lanterns”? According to one Christian folk tale, this terrifying character evolved from a man known as Old Jack, who was so evil, neither heaven nor hell would take him. In death, he wandered the countryside on All Hallows’ Eve, lighting his way with a turnip lantern lit by a glowing lump of coal. People carried around turnips like these to light their way, dubbing them Jack-o’-Lanterns. Over time, pumpkins became the favored Halloween vegetable (also in part due to the fact that in America, Irish settlers found pumpkins more abundant than turnips!)
Like many festivals, the modern incarnation of Halloween has evolved over the centuries. And along the way, modern customs have been actively created.
In the early 1900s, for example, Kansas resident Elizabeth Krebs wanted to curb the number of children vandalizing her property at Halloween. So she began throwing lavish Halloween parties, encouraging children to dress up and come. The parties had the effect of exhausting the kids, who left her rose gardens in peace. Fair play, Elizabeth, fair play.
Last but not least, who could forget trick-or-treating? The most quintessential Halloween tradition there is. Surprisingly, this Halloween practice likely has its origins in an old Christian tradition of “souling” (once again, popular in Ireland.) On All Hallows’ Eve, children went door to door offering a prayer for a dearly departed loved one. In exchange, they received soul cakes, which had a cross cut in the top. Another potential origin of trick-or-treating is “mumming,” where costumed performers would go door to door exchanging songs for a glass of something hot and usually alcoholic.
Why Does Halloween Fall on October 31?
It’s been theorized that holding Halloween on the day before the Christian All Saints’ Day was an attempt at fusing Christian practices with existing folk customs. Essentially, early Christians tacked a Church celebration onto Samhain to get the pagans on board. Sneaky.
Another explanation for the timing of Halloween is that the night before the holiest of saints’ days is naturally considered in opposition. It’s no wonder that Hallows’ Eve is associated with everything dark, spooky, and evil, with monsters and ghouls wandering the countryside, before being banished by the light of the saints.
Whatever the reason for Halloween’s autumnal presence, one thing is true: There’s no better time to tell ghost stories around the fire than on Halloween, the spookiest night of the year!