Have candy, costumes and commercialisation distracted us from the true meaning of Halloween? Here are some Halloween facts you should know before putting on your Halloween costume.
Halloween today represents candy and costumes and, in some critics’ minds, over-commercialisation since the adoption of Halloween in the United States. But the origins of Halloween and many Halloween traditions have sinister and humble beginnings – full of superstitions, death, love and meddling evil spirits – which give some indication of the morbidity associated with frightening Halloween costumes today.
Few spirits would be scared by modern Halloween costumes of celebrities, naughty nurses and French maids, but there was once a practical need for a dark and foreboding style of dress: it was believed that dressing like death would trick evil spirits into thinking you were a fellow spirit and scare them away. Many European traditions dictated that Halloween was a time when magic was the most potent and spirits could contact the physical world, as well as being a necessary time to attempt to stave off death before the approaching dark winter and food scarcity.
So what should Halloween really mean today? Are candy, costumes and commercialisation distracting us from placating demons to ensure a bountiful harvest?
Today’s Halloween celebrations would appear to largely forget more than 2,000 years of history and evolution that contributed to today’s Halloween traditions and symbols, dragging the celebration through pagan, Christian and secular pasts.
Indeed, in Europe, the frivolous Halloween on 31 October is much less favoured compared to the sombre All Saints Day on 1 November, when families visit and place flowers on the graves of loved one and attend mass – although the two holidays are supringly more connected than many people know, despite that Halloween isn’t an official holiday and All Saints Day is. Mexico’s ‘Day of the Dead’ (Dia de los Muertos) is perhaps the perfect fusion of these seemingly opposites, associating celebatory festivals and costumes as a way to honour their dead.
Without knowing it, many Halloween traditions you celebrate today come from a library of rich stories – some myth, some fact – that help explain why we carve pumpkins, bob for apples or go trick-or-treating.
Here we take time to uncover the origins of Halloween and All Saints Day:
- The origin of Halloween: a European or American holiday?
- Why we carve Halloween pumpkins
- Jack-o’-laterns – a deal made with Satan
- Bobbing for apples – a game or a god?
- Tricks, treats or ‘soul cake’
- The origin of Halloween costumes
- Halloween superstitions: a time for love predictions
The name Halloween or Hallowe’en – a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening or All Hallows’ Eve – is a reference to the day before the Christian holiday of All Hallow’s Day or All Saints’ Day, an important date in the Christian calendar dedicated to remembering the dead, martyrs, saints, and other departed faithfuls.
But, similar to many Christian-adapted holidays, the origin of Halloween is thought to be pagan, blooming in the dark nights of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (meaning ‘summer’s end’ in Gaelic), when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts.
Living around 2,000 years ago in what is modern Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, the Celts celebrated their new year on 1 November as summer and harvests ended and the cold, harsh winter began – a time typical of many deaths. The Celts believed the boundaries between life and death became blurred on the eve of each new year – 31 October – when ghosts of the dead would return to earth causing havoc and destroying crops. But it was also a time when people, typically Druids or Celtic priests, could access future predictions, which became a comfort to the people facing a long, dark winter. But after the Romans invaded around 43AD, Christianity became infused with and supplanted Celtic traditions over the next 400 years of rule.
In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III dedicated 1 November to honor all saints and martyrs – and ‘All Saints Day’ was born. By 1000AD the church introduced All Souls’ Day on 2 November, in what is widely believed to have been an attempt to replace Celtic traditions with an official church holiday; symbols of Samhain were transferred to the Christian holiday, such as bonfires, parades and dressing in costumes such as devils, angels and saints.
All Hallows or All Hallowmas comes from Middle English Alholowmesse, meaning All Saints’ Day, and the night before – the traditional celebration of the Celtic religious festival Samhain – began to be called All Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
But over time Halloween has largely left behind its pagan and Christian origins to become a secular community-celebrated holiday, particularly in the US.
Interestingly, it was hardly celebrated in America until hoards of Irish and Scottish immigrants began arriving in the mid-1800s, bringing a mash of traditions with them. Perhaps stemming from Celts’ prediction practices on Samhain, young women believed that Halloween was the day they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with mirrors, apple parings or yarn, and would also dress up in costumes and go door-to-door asking for money or food, the early forms of trick-or-treating.
There was a move in the US to create a more community-based and neighbourly Halloween – less ghosts and pranks, more family-friendly gatherings and parties – by encouraging via newspapers and community leaders to take anything ‘frightening’ or ‘grotesque’ out of Halloween. By the 20th century Halloween lost most of its religious and superstitious attachments – although many of today’s Halloween traditions come from exactly that.
To distract wandering spirits from settling into their homes and farms, Celts once carved faces into turnips and set candles inside, a rudimentary form of pumpkin carving today. These turnip lanterns would line roadways and gates to show the way but also caution passing spirits from invading.
After these traditions were exported across the Atlanic, it wasn’t long before carved pumpkins – native to North America – began to show up and were fully embraced across the country by the 1920s. Farmers began breeding better pumpkins for carving, and it was Massachusetts farmer John Howden who developed the Howden pumpkin in the 1960s, still the most popular carving pumpkin in America for its ideal carving attributes – thick stem, shallow ribs and thin flesh – although they aren’t as useful for cooking.
Stepping away from fact are the many legends surrounding the origin of Jack-o’-Laterns, thought to come from Irish folklore. When a man named Jack manged to trap Satan, the exchange for Satan’s release was that Satan would never take Jack’s soul. But at the time of Jack’s death he was too sinful for heavan and Satan, keeping his promise, barred him from hell, leaving Jack stuck in what Christian’s would refer to as purgatory. Jack, facing eternal wandering on earth, asked Satan for something to light his way, to which Satan tossed a flame from Hades that would never go out. Jack carved out a turnip to place the ember, earning him the nickname of Jack of the Latern, or Jack-o-latern – or so the story goes.
The latern was used to guide Jack’s soul, and thus Celts believed placing lit turnips outside would guide family spirits home, while at the same time the scary carvings would repel evil spirits.
When the Romans swooped in on the Celts around 43AD and held reign for some 400 years, a mixture of festivals ensued: Samhain was combined with the Roman holiday of Feralia, a day in late October that also honoured the dead, and the day dedicated to the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. Interestingly, her symbol was an apple and is one likely explanation for the tradition of ‘bobbing for apples’ on Halloween.
It also became a tradition at some Halloween parties that the first successful apple-bobber would be first down the aisle. Numerous superstitions sprouted around this, considering the predictive nature of this special fruit: if you got the apple first-try you would find true love, while if it took several tries you would be fickle in love. Some young women would also place an apple under their pillow so their future husband would be revealed in their dreams.
Today around one quarter of all candy sold in the US is bought to celebrate Halloween, and trekking from door-to-door in search of candy ‘treats’ is a predominately modern American tradition. Although trick-or-treating is much less practised in Europe today, therein lies the secret to how this Halloween tradition started.
Celtic folklore believed some spirits transformed into human form, sometimes a beggar, to ask for money or food, and if turned away the spirit would haunt or curse you.
Another source of this Halloween tradition is thought to date back to All Saints Day parades in England, when poor citizens would beg families for food and receive pastries – known as ‘soul cakes’ – in exchange for praying for the families’ dead relatives. Giving soul cakes – a practice referred to as ‘souling’ – was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient tradition of leaving out food and wine for roaming spirits. Over time children joined in by visiting their neighbours to ask for ale, food and money.
English and Irish immigrants revived this practice after moving to America and, except during WWII when sugar was scarce, this Halloween tradition has continually gained steam and popularity in the US where some 40 million trick-or-treaters join the candy-filled fun today.
Halloween costumes are though to have both Celtic and European origins. During the Samhain bonfire, crops and animal sacrifices were burned, while Celts dressed up in morbid and frightening costumes to scare away spirits, typically animal heads and skins. Some say the bonfires also attracted rodents and bats, the latter becoming another symbol associated with Halloween. It was also believed that if you were outside on 31 October, the day ghosts returned to the living world, you might encounter a roaming spirit – unless you dressed up and tricked them into thinking you were a fellow spirit.
The colours of orange and black are also thought to come from this autumn festival, where orange represented crops and turning leaves and black represented the turning of the season to winter and death.
Commercialisation of Halloween started in the 1900s when postcards and paper decorations were produced, Halloween costumes started to appear in stores in the 1930s and today Halloween is a profitable holiday for costume, decoration and candy manufacturers.
Modern Halloween costumes have retained a sense of morbidity, with various Halloween symbols such as spooks, ghosts, zombies and skeletons representing the contact between the spiritual and physical world or the living and the dead.
Witches and wizards are also a common Halloween costume theme, and perhaps not surprisingly seeing Celtic Druids were considered to have power to make predictions on October 31. The haggard witch image with a warty nose and pointy hat, however, references the pagan goddess known as ‘the old crone’ or ‘earth mother’, who was honoured during the Celtic Samhain celebrations and symbolised change, wisdom and the turning of seasons – a vastly different image from the crackling, evil witches we see today. The crone’s cauldron represented the earth’s womb, where all souls went for reincarnation; stirring the pot allowed new souls to enter and old souls to be reborn.
Bats, black cats and spiders were often seen as symbols or pets associated with witches, and the source of many superstitions that indicated death, past relatives or spirits were nearby if you saw one.
In light of Halloween’s tradition connection to death and protecting property from spirits, blood, fire, gravestones, pumpkins, bones and skulls are also common Halloween themes.
Besides being a night when family members felt close to dead loved ones, Halloween has always been drenched in magic and mystery – and many superstitions. For friendly spirits, families would leave out table settings or place treats and candles on their doorsteps or pathways to guide spirits.
Today’s Halloween ghosts are considerably scarier and superstitions have evolved. Some avoid crossing the path of a black cat, for example, which stems from beliefs in the Middle Ages that witches avoided detection by turning themselves into cats, as well as from references in the Dark Ages when witchcraft was common and cats were seen as demonic pets gifted by the devil or, in some cases, the devil himself in disguise.
But many Halloween rituals have largely been forgotten, particularly traditions that focused on the future rather than death and morbidity. In contrast, many of these obsolete rituals focused on love; it was believed that on Halloween young women could divine the name or face of their future husband and, with luck, be married before the next Halloween. An 18th-century Irish cook might have buried a ring in her mashed potatoes to catch an unsuspecting diner, while Scottish women were told to write men’s names on hazlenuts and toss them in the fire to see which name burned to ashes rather than popping. Some women ate a sugary mix of walnuts, hazelnuts and nutmeg before bed on Halloween so they could dream their future husband’s face, while other women tossed apple-peels over their shoulders to see if they fell in the shape of a future husband’s initial.
Halloween in Europe
Halloween celebrations have picked up only recently, since it was frowned upon by the Lutheran church. Nowadays, the parties and ‘trick or treating’ tradition come from across the pond, but some old traditions remain. For instance, some people hide all their knives from the evil spirits on Halloween night.
The Irish, Scots and English people did not carve pumpkins but beets and turnips. And then children did a round of the neighbourhood to show off their scary root vegetables and got money in return. Irish immigrants to the USA are credited for creating the tradition in North America.
Some people leave bread, water and a lighted lamp on the table before they go to bed on Halloween night. This is for the dead souls.
In Sweden, Halloween is known as Alla Helgons Dag and is observed from 31 October until 6 November.
People light candles in memory of their dead relatives.
Not a Dutch tradition, Halloween customs are somewhat similar to St Martin’s Day celebrated on 11 November. This marked the beginning of the harvest season in Europe (France, Germany, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe), during which the slaughter and preservation of cattle for the winter months was carried out. Children go door to door singing songs, carrying handmade paper lanterns (a bit like the North American pumpkin lanterns) and they get candy. Sounds familiar? The actual day of Halloween itself has North American style activities for those who celebrate.
Halloween for a good cause
Halloween doesn’t have to be about commercialisation, however, and a good tie to the holiday is to collect donations for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Look for UNICEF-labelled, small cardboard boxes that some trick-or-treat children carry on Halloween night instead of bags for candy. Donated money goes to UNICEF to help needy children around the world.