It’s getting towards that time of year again when we carve out pumpkins and decorate our houses with all things spooky. We are all familiar with the gothic imagery of broomsticks, bats, crescent moons, and so on, which appear on everything from duvet cover sets to dog jumpers around October, but where did these traditions first originate?
The name Halloween is a contraction of ‘All Hallows Evening’, and is the eve of the Christian feast of All Hallows Day. It is a traditional way to remember the dead and dearly departed, and of honouring saints and martyrs. Many historians believe that the festival has pre-Christian roots, and may be linked to ancient Celtic pagan harvest festivals such as Samhain.
The tradition of dressing up
It is now a firmly established 21st century tradition that children dress up and go ‘trick or treating’ on Halloween. It is believed that the custom began around the 16th century, when ‘mumming’ and guising’ became part of the Halloween ritual in the Celtic countries of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.
This meant literally taking on the disguise of the dead, in the form of a costume, and going from house to house, singing in exchange for gifts of food. It is thought that by receiving offerings on behalf of the dead, people were protecting themselves from vengeful spirits and honouring the faithfully departed.
Those who refused to give bountifully to the disguised doorstep callers were said to be cursed with ill fortune, which explains why children use the modern ‘trick or treat’ ritual to threaten adults with mischief! The practice was widespread in the Celtic nations, but is not thought to have spread to most areas of England until the 20th century.
Today, the tradition of dressing up has expanded from ghosts and ghouls, to encompass the whole realm of supernatural beings, from witches, wizards, skeletons, devils, and monsters, to figures from popular culture, and even celebrities or people of recent notoriety.
The boundary of the Otherworld
Halloween also marked the end of summer and the beginning of the shorter days and longer nights. The change in season was believed by the Celts to thin the boundary between the world of the living and the Otherworld, meaning it was easier for ghouls and fairies to cross over. Some people also believed in the ‘twilight gate’, a geographical ghostly entry point.
As a way to keep the Otherworldly inhabitants away, people would decorate their houses with offerings to the gods, such as fruit, leaves, and vegetables, which is reflected in the modern practice of dressing your house for Halloween.
The rituals of All Hallows’ Eve
As well as decorations and dressing up, there is a tradition of Halloween games and rituals. These include apple bobbing, where children attempt to catch apples floating in a bucket of water with their teeth. It is believed to have been a fortune-telling method; whoever caught the first apple would be the next to marry.
Another rather more alarming method of fortune telling involved unmarried women sitting in a darkened room on Halloween, and gazing into a mirror. Either the face of their future husband would appear, or else a skull and crossbones, which meant that they would die before marriage.
Other Celtic traditions included laying out several saucers, which each contained a symbolic item. For example, a ring would symbolise marriage, clay, imminent death; a coin, imminent wealth; a bean, impending poverty; and rosary beads, a future in the religious orders. A blindfolded player then had to pick a saucer at random to foretell their fate.
A worldwide tradition
It is widely agreed that the Halloween traditions began in the Celtic nations, but as large sections of their populations emigrated and spread across the globe during the 19th century, they took their rituals with them. Originally seen as an immigrant practice, Halloween took a particular hold on the imagination of the North Americans.
The customs of Halloween are now widely celebrated in all areas of the US, with a practice of placing candles on graves, and parades which attract thousands of participants. However, although some Christians embrace the practice, others dislike its pagan roots, and do not observe it, although they may celebrate All Hallows Day, and All Souls’ Day on 2 November.
Halloween is now accepted by most as a fun time of the year, for both children and adults to dress up and party. It is a festival that is open to interpretation; it can be a celebration of the harvest and a way of raising cheer as the nights draw in, with decorations and candles. It can also take on a deeper meaning for those who wish to honour someone special.
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