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The Origins of Halloween and its Traditions

You might have some fond memories of Halloween growing-up, where you dressed-up as your favorite superhero or mystical entity, to go door-to-door collecting candy. When someone opened the door, you would say, “Trick or Treat,” or the more comical, “Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat,” and get tossed a piece of candy in your pillow case. However, you might not have known why this was a tradition of the holiday or why we even celebrate Halloween on October 31st. As well, you may not know that Halloween has its roots in an ancient, pagan harvest celebration, has practices in Christianity and even a murder plot contributes to the holiday.

But before we jump into the ancient history of Halloween and other fascinating lore, first we go to the America’s, where the holiday really took off.

Moon and Bats by Larisa Koshkina

America’s Halloween?

Today, while Halloween is celebrated in a number of different ways, the tradition of kids going door-to-door to ask for sweets from their neighbors holds its origins in the early 20th Century. And it all came about due to a woman who loved her garden.

On November 1st 1912, Elizabeth Krebs awoke to find her flower beds and cultivations destroyed by the local children. The kids, who were keeping with the traditions of celebrating Guy Fawkes Day, had gone about town vandalizing people’s houses and property. Elizabeth, not unfazed by the event, came up with a plan for the following year, which involved keeping the children occupied throughout Halloween night, so they wouldn’t go about town destroying people’s assets and wreaking havoc on her prize-winning garden. Yet again, her garden was destroyed the next year on Halloween night. Heck, the rambunctious troublemakers even set a mail carrier on fire.

Still undaunted, Krebs decided more needed to be done in order to keep the rowdy kids occupied. A parade was held in 1914, along with games and other fun activities for the kids to participate in. Attacks on helpless gardens or town folk’s homes were drastically reduced, due to Kreb’s efforts with the local authorities and city leaders. Plus, people loved the event so much the tradition continued the following year, with costume parties becoming a tradition in Hiawatha, Kansas. Additionally, the holiday evolved with the influx of immigrants, particularly the Irish, during the Potato Famine between 1845 to 1849. Even the name Halloween as changed over time.

The Basis of the Name “Halloween”

The name for the holiday, Halloween, has its roots in Christianity, beginning with the Scottish term Hallow e’en, translating to Saint’s Evening. Here’s the breakdown of the word:

  • Old Saxon: Helagon
  • Middle Dutch: Heligen
  • Old Norse: Helga

Which resulted in the Old English form: Halgian—meaning Hallow, to sanctify (verb) and saint (noun) and the adjective h?lig, meaning holy.

Leading to the name All Hallows’ Day (All Saints Day), a celebration feast on November 1st in remembrance of Christian saints and, of course, All Hallows’ Evening on October 31st.One of the earliest forms of the word can be found in Shakespear’s Measure for Measure as Allhallond-Eue [Merriam Webster, Vocabulary].

Of course, the phrase Hallow Evening (Saint’s Evening) was changed to All Hallows’ Even and then shortened further to Hallow-e’en, where the even turned to e-en and the all disappeared from the term. Today, we call it Halloween, but it didn’t appear in its modern form till the 16th Century, when it first appeared in a Robert Burn’s poem titled Halloween:

“Among the bonny winding banks,
Where Doon rins, wimplin’ clear,
Where Bruce ance ruled the martial ranks,
And shook his Carrick spear,
Some merry, friendly, country-folks,
Together did convene,
To burn their nits, and pou their stocks,
And haud their Halloween
Fu’ blithe that night.”
(Halloween, Burns)

Now that we know how the name of Halloween evolved, where did it all begin? For that, we need to go back, way back, before Christianity was taking hold across Europe. To an ancient celebration practiced by pagans.

Jack-O-Lantern Face by Andreas Lischka

A Note on the Historical Sources

Before we dive-into the origins of our modern-day Halloween, a disclaimer on the following information.

Collected Information of Samhain

A lot of the sources we have surrounding Samhain dates back to records from the Roman Empire and the Christian church. The information, collected from occupied Romans, which was written by such historians like Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 AD – 120 AD), created a narrative skewed for their political gains. The Celts and their Druids were made out to be the “Other,” or “lesser than,” there traditions viewed as barbaric and animalistic. To give you an idea of this skewed view of the ancient Celts, here’s one such account Tactitus recorded, likely received from military accounts:

“On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames” (Tacitus Annals XIV).

Churchill’s quote, “History is written by victors,” holds true here, since Druids never wrote down their practices or beliefs, only relaying their traditions orally to the next generation. We only know of these “whispers of history” due to such historians and monks. All information relating to Samhain and its practices needs to be taken with a grain of salt and not viewed as hundred percent factual.

If you want to learn more, I highly suggest you watch C’est Pas Sourcé’s YouTube video, Samhain and the Origins of Halloween (As Well As All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day), which does an excellent job of diving into Samhain by analyzing the literature, ancient accounts and puzzling through the demonization of the holiday.

Samhain – A “Pastural” Pagan Festival?

“Samhain, Samhain, let the ritual begin,
We call upon our sacred ancestors to come in
Samhain, Samhain, we call upon our kin,
We call upon our dear departed loved ones to come in
The Veil between the worlds is thin
Our hearts reach cross the sea of time
To bring our loved ones in
Samhain, Samhain we honor all our kin
We honor those who’ve gone before
As the Great Wheel turns again…” (Samhain, Lisa Thiel)

Samhain, pronounced SOW-in, was thought to be a Celtic feast held to celebrate summer’s end, as well as prepare for the dark, uncertain winter months ahead (Hutton). According to an article published by Brown University, the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain was a liminal, agricultural festival, a time to check the food stores, so the populace could fully prepare for the winter months. Aside from ensuring survival, it was also believed the “veil between worlds” became thin, allowing for the spirits to interact with the living.

Again, these ancient pagans did not write down their ancient practices, so it could only be theorized what they really did on October 31st and November 1st based on sources from the Christian monk Bede and what was still being practiced during the Middle Ages.

In matters of the spiritual, bonfires, literally meaning fire of bones in Middle English, were lit to appease the gods [Merriam-Webster]. Also, bonfires were often used as a means of warding off evil spirits, or, in reality they were trying to ward of disease, as explained by English historian Ronald Edmund Hutton:

“It was believed that…evil spirits would roam free and fire would ward them off…[and] a fire made entirely of bones, is a bone fire, is where we get the word bonfire. They smell dreadful and the pungent smoke would drive away evil spirits” (Hutton, How Ale Was Made – Absolute History).

However, even the theory that the Celts created giant bonfires to appease their gods is met with skepticism by historians. Certain regions of Ireland, particularly the Scottish Highlands, most of the Hebrides, and other regions, do not mention bonfires in the Irish folklore (C’est Pas Sourcé’s). So, it’s plausible bonfires were not a practice of Samhain at all.

One could only surmise a strong fear must have permeated the holiday. Fear of the coming cold and the potential for friends and family to perish in the winter and initial spring, due to malicious fairies or ghost. Contributing to that fear was the threat of invasion, so it is very possible the festival was a way of letting-off stress and giving one last “hurrah” before the populace had to hunker down for the winter months.

A misconception of Samhain that saturates media today is it was a god or an evil spirit, not a feast. This concept appears in a variety of films, such as Halloween II, where Samhain was a “Celtic Lord of the Dead.” This belief is traced to Charles Vallencey, a British military surveyor who traveled to Ireland to record its history [C’est Pas Sourcé’s]. Here’s where Vallancey states that Samhain is the Celtic Lord of the Dead (excuse my crude translation from the 18th Century text):

“They taught that Psthagorean system of the transmigration of fouls; and that Samhan or Baal-Samhan at this season called the souls to judgement, which, according to their merits or demerits in the life past, were aligned to re-enter the bodies of the human or brute species, and to be happy or miserable during their next abode on their sublunary globe; hence Samhan was named BALSAB, or Dominus mortis, for Bal is lord, and Sab death. But the punishment of the wicked, they taught, might be alleviated, by charms and magic art, and by the sacrifices made by their friends to Bal, and presents to the Druids for their intercession” (Collectanea De Rebus Hibernicis, Vol 3 – Vallencey).

Another misconception is that the Celtic pagans conducted human sacrifices to their gods, in order to have a successful harvest. The text The Dindshenchas (Lore of Places) claims they offered up sacrifices to Cromm Cruaìch, meaning Crooked Mound, at a place called Magh Slecht (the plain of prostration) located in County Cavan, Ireland. Supposedly, St. Patrick ended the practice of human sacrifices by destroying the Cromm idol, because “Christians regarded idols as worthless” and a threat to Christian ideology (Collins). Granted, there’s hints that Cromm was a fertility god, that the pagans sacrificed their first-borns to, but again the practiced was painted in an “otherness” by opposing beliefs and should not be viewed as factual:

“Here used to stand a lofty idol, that saw many a fight, whose name was the Cromm Cruaich; it caused every tribe to live without peace.

Alas for its secret power! the valiant Gaedil used to worship it: not without tribute did they ask of it to satisfy them with their share in the hard world.

He was their god, the wizened Cromm, hidden by many mists: as for the folk that believed in him, the eternal Kingdom beyond every haven shall not be theirs.

For him ingloriously they slew their hapless firstborn with much wailing and peril, to pour their blood round Cromm Cruaich.

Milk and corn they asked of him speedily in return for a third part of all their progeny: great was the horror and outcry about him.

To him the bright Gaedil did obeisance: from his worship–many the crimes–the plain bears the name Mag Slecht.

Thither came Tigernmas, prince of distant Tara, one Samain eve, with all his host: the deed was a source of sorrow to them.

They stirred evil, they beat palms, they bruised bodies, wailing to the demon who held them thralls, they shed showers of tears, weeping prostrate” (The Metrical Dindshenchas Part 4).

Ultimately, Samhain was not the name of the Christian demon BalSab or involved sacrificing people, but was a time to bring in the sheep from the pasture to their winter homes, sheltering inside with their caretakers to survive through the cold. Additionally, it was also alleged to be a time to try to scare away evil spirits by “mumming” or “guising,” dressing-up as ghost, bringing comfort to the dead, or to ask the dead for guidance for the coming year, according to Hutton:

“Hallowe’en developed from the Celtic feast of Samhain, which marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter. For the Celt, Samhain was the beginning of the year and the cycle of the seasons. Samhain was a time when the Celts acknowledged the beginning and the ending of all things… For the Celts, Samhain was a time when the gates between this world and the next were open. It was a time of communion with the spirits of the dead, who, like the wild autumnal winds, were free to roam the earth. At Samhain, the Celts called upon their ancestors, who might bring warnings and guidance to help in the year to come” (Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Hutton).

And from these ancient, Pagan practices, we can start to see how Halloween changed to its modern celebration. But before our contemporary Halloween came about, it is theorized that Samhain had to change due to the arrival of Christianity, eventually becoming All Hallow’s Day.

Jack-O-Lanterns by Bany_MM

All Hallow’s Day (Halloween’s Christian Roots)

So, what of the Christian roots of Halloween and what is All Hallow’s Day anyway? For those of the Christian faith, this is a day of observation of all of the Saints, such as St. Patrick and “reminds us of our connectedness as Christians” [Christianity]. But a Saint, according to The Bible, is not given precedence just based on superficial means of doing good deeds to please Him, but to all of those that trust God:

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

Like the Celtic pagans who were made into “the otherness,” Christians were being persecuted by the Roman Empire for believing in God. According to Christianity.com, in 607 AD (other websites state 609 AD) the Pantheon was consecrated to all of the saints who had died three hundred years after Christ:

“…in 607 Emperor Phocas presented to the pope the beautiful Roman Pantheon temple. The pope removed the statues of Jupiter and the pagan gods and consecrated the Pantheon to “all saints” who had died from Roman persecution in the first three hundred years after Christ. Many bones were brought from other graves and placed in the rededicated Pantheon church. Since there were too many martyrs for each to be given a day, they were lumped together into one day” [Christianity].

According to Ephraem Syrus there was a feast held on May 13th, but it was to the martyred and the Virgin Mary, not including all of the saints. It wasn’t until Pope Gregory III that the holiday was believed to be moved to November 1st, to include honoring both martyrs and saints. But, what did the new tradition possibly borrow from the ancient, Celtic one? It could only be surmised that a way of remembering or honoring the dead changed to baking Soul Cakes, of praying for those trapped in purgatory.

Souling was a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, where people would travel to local farms and villages, singing a “Souling song” for food, which was typically apples, ale, or soul cakes. This tradition occurred on All Hallow’s Day, All Soul’s Day and Christmas:

“Hallowmas, the mass or feastday of All-hallows, or all Saints. Nov. 2. On all Saint’s day the poor people went from parish to parish a souling, that is, begging in a certain lamentable tone, for a kind of cakes called soulcakes, and singing a song which they call the souler’s song” (An Appendix to His Dramatic Works, Fleische).

It’s easy to start drawing the conclusion that “souling” would eventually give rise to Trick-O-Treating in the United States and other countries. You might have already heard a Souling song that has made it into our pop culture today in Sting’s song ‘Soul Cake’, which is played around Christmas time or Kristen Lawrence’s ‘Souling Song – Samhain Version’ for Halloween. However, the traditional songs were far more potent for the poor to receive donations. Here’s a version of the song from 1891, the unfortunate would sing while souling:

“A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!,
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.
God bless the master of this house,
The mistress also,
And all the little children
That round your table grow.
Likewise young men and maidens,
Your cattle and your store;
And all that dwells within your gates,
We wish you ten times more.
Down into the cellar,
And see what you can find,
If the barrels are not empty,
We hope you will prove kind.
We hope you will prove kind,
With your apples and strong beer,
And we’ll come no more a-souling
Till this time next year.
The lanes are very dirty,
My shoes are very thin,
I’ve got a little pocket
To put a penny in.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny,
It’s God bless you” (“A Souling Song”).

Or this version, collected by Burne at the Market in Drayton, which is believed to be the “purest and oldest”:

“Soul! Soul! For a soul-cake!
I pray, good missis, a soul-cake!
An apple or pear, a plum or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us merry,
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him who made us all,
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
Give us good alms, and we’ll be gone” (The Late Victorian Folksong Revival: The Persistence of English Melody, 1878-1903, Gregory)

Jack-O-Lanterns

Aside from the Soul Cakes and singing, people also carried around other objects that represented the souls of loved ones trapped in purgatory, such as hollowed-out turnips or mangelwurzels. These lanterns harken back to an old legend of an Irish folktale of Stingy Jack, who drunkenly keeps tricking the devil and ends-up making a deal that keeps him from going to heaven or hell. He carries a lantern to see by in the dark, doomed to roam the countryside forever, hence the term “Jack of the Lantern,” or known simply Jack-O-Lantern:

“…Then, because he was unfit for heaven, and that hell refused to take him, he was decreed to walk the earth with a lantern to light him on his nightly way till the day of judgement” (The Dublin Penny Journal, E.W).

The myth is thought to originate to the folk belief of will-o-wisp, winking lights that are common among peat bogs. Of course, will-o-wisp are really gasses released due to oxidation of phosphorous and other organic vapors of decay, known as chemiluminescence. And, conventionally the American pumpkin has taken the turnip’s place as the lantern, with the immigration of the Irish over to the states who found pumpkins far easier to carve than the waxy, hefty turnip.

November 5th – Guy Fawkes Day

With the Protestant Reformation, and a lot of traditions changing or ceasing with the oppression of the Catholic faith, it’s not hard to see how many did not favor King James I. The traditions of the Catholic faith, such as All Saints Day, was ceased and the people had to find another way of celebrating their traditions of lighting bonfires and going house-to-house asking for food. Some of these practices from All Saint’s Day and Samhain were morphed into Guy Fawkes Day.

Wanting to reestablish the Catholic faith and assassinate the Protestant king, Guy Fawkes and the rest of the members of the Gunpowder Plot planted explosives underneath the House of Parliament (Gunpowder Plots: A Celebration of 400 Years of Bonfire Night). The assassination attempt was foiled due to an anonymous letter being sent to the 4th Baron of Monteagle, William Parker and the House of Lords being searched, discovering Fawkes guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder (Gunpowder Plots):

“About midnight on 4 November they [Knyvet] reached Fawkes in the vault, booted and fully clothed. Knyvet had him arrested, and his men found the gunpowder, packed in thirty-six barrels, under the woodpile…The plotters intended that on the morning of Tuesday 5 November Fawkes would light the length of slow match as soon as the king came into the Lords (presumably by hearing the noise overhead) and get away across the Thames before the explosion (Gunpowder Plots).

So how does Guy Fawkes Day contribute to Halloween? Huge bonfires are lit, where a figure of Fawkes (or even the Pope or any other hated religious figure) is burned within the flames, as well as fireworks being set-off into the night sky as a celebration of the murder effort being thwarted.

Later, the practice evolved to children going from house-to-house singing songs and collecting flammable materials to burn, such as tar barrels to fuel the bonfires, as well as food and drink (Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Rogers). Thus, those preparing for Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night, would be prone to commit mischief if they didn’t get their materials to burn:

“In Yorkshire, gangs of youths ranged the streets, striking doors with bags of stones and shouting out, “Fift’ o’ November, we’ll mak’ ye’ remember”” (Rogers).

It could be argued the ancient custom of pastural folk gathering around bone fires to ward away evil, morphed into a celebration of burning an assassin. Nevertheless, the mischief of children and drunken hooligans begging for materials for the event would eventually give way to Halloween, coming to a head in America when Elizabeth Krebs saw her garden destroyed on November 1st.

Mumming, Guising and Monsters, Oh My!

Mumming is a folk play performed by male actors disguised in costumes in exchange for treats, and it’s not hard to see how it contributes to Halloween. The custom of mumming, or guising, was first performed in Canada in 1911 in Ontario, Canada. Trick-or-Treating was mainly a Canadian and an American affair. It rose in popularity in the late 40s and 50s, due to radio programs The Baby Snooks Show (1946) and later The Peanuts Comic Strip (1951). Of course, the popular disguises of vampires, witches, werewolves, ghost and Frankenstein can all be traced from Victorian gothic literature and earlier novels, such as Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Stoker’s Dracula (1897), or Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) and were further popularized in the film industrial.

Other Halloween Lore and Traditions

The colors of Halloween are orange, representing decay and harvesting, and black, symbolizing death, evil and darkness. Today, purple and green are also associated with the holiday, with the two colors toning-down the dim palette to a friendly demeanor for marketing strategies. One could argue that the colors green and purple help catch the shopper’s eye while they’re perusing the grocery store. Interesting enough, in recent years a new Halloween tradition has sprung-up and involves painting your door purple, in indication of a witch residing in the house [Witchipedia].

Let’s not forget the tradition of bobbing for apples, which was practiced by the ancient Romans. When they invaded Britain and brought their apple trees over, the single men and ladies would try to catch the fruit in their teeth, in order to be married next.

Aside from the festive activity, candied and caramel apples are a delightful treat during the holiday, and candies are a must in the month of October. Of course, I feel we can all agree that corporate America played a huge part of Trick-or-Treating for candy, with sales already outpacing the previous year. But I wouldn’t be lying if I didn’t have a lot of fond memories of carrying around a pillowcase and getting it filled with candy.

So, while there’s still a lot of dispute on Halloween and its root, we can all agree that it’s a fun time of year. With the temperatures dropping, the leaves changing for some of you in the northern states, to finding new, safer ways to celebrate the spooky holiday due to Covid, we can all appreciate the joy the day brings for us during these troubling times. And while there are different traditions around the world, from Mexico’s Day of the Dead, to the newer practice of “Trunk-or-Treating” in the US, we all continue to celebrate a holiday dedicated to deceased loved ones and gobbling-up sweets.

Stay safe everyone, and have a merry Samhain, Hallow’s Day and a Happy Halloween! Interested in reading more spooky articles? Then check out my article ‘The Many Faces of the Headless Horseman,’ or read my review of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Sources

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Works Cited

Title image by Larisa Koshkina.

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