Be prepared to impress your friends and family this Halloween with a history of the spooky season.
The story of Christmas, Bonfire night and Easter are as old as time but we seldom give thought to October’s excuse for a dress-up and a booze. We already know it’s an excuse to eat way too many sweets and don your scariest/sluttiest outfit but what’s it actually about? Well, despite inspiring hundreds of demons and ghosts to run about knocking on doors, it originally began as a Celtic tradition, intending to ward off spirits where people would dress up in costumes and dance around a fire.
The ancient tradition
The Celtic festival we’re talking about is called Samhain - pronounced sow-hin (weird, we know) – and dates back to the Celts who were kicking about Ireland, Great Britain and Northern France around 2000 years ago. Crazy as it may seem, they celebrated the New Year on November 1st as it marked the end of Summer (and the end of their harvest).
It was the start of the dark, cold winter and was also a time when a lot of people died. According to the Celts, on the night of November 1st, the lines between the living and the dead got blurry so they used the opportunity to celebrate the return of the dead to earth. They built bonfires and burnt sacrifices (don’t try this at home), wore costumes made out of animal skin and heads (maybe don’t try this either) and tried to tell each others fortunes (we think this should be safe).
The Roman twist
By 43 AD the Romans had pretty much taken over most Celtic land and they stayed in charge for around 400 years. Historians reckon that two Roman festivals combined with Samhain and made it into an even bigger deal. One of those festivals was called Pomona and was given to celebrate the Goddess of the fruit and trees. The symbol of the festival is an apple – which is probably where apple bobbing comes from.
Then the pope got involved
Not wanting the saints to get left out, Pope Gregory III decided that he’d expand the festival All Martyrs Day to include all the saints, moving the day to November 1st. By the 9th century, Christianity was pretty big time in Celtic land and blended with Pagan traditions. Muscling in on Samhain, the Church made November 2nd All Souls Day in the year 1000. A bit like the original Celtic festival, there were huge bonfires and people dressed as saints and devils. The day was called Alholowmesse in Middle English and eventually transformed into the modern day word Halloween (good luck trying to have a conversation in English back in the 11th century).
Trick or treating
As far back as the 16th century hungry Brits would dress up in scary costumes and knock on their neighbour’s doors begging for food. The tradition is thought to have started in Scotland and back then they were trying to get their hands on something called ‘Soul Cakes’ (but we’d much prefer the unwanted leftover coconut Quality Streets). And if the olden-day people of Britain didn’t give up their hard earned groceries to some children dressed as ghosts? Then the children would sing rhymes and quite terrifyingly threaten to do mischief (they knew the value of wasting eggs and loo roll back then).
Halloween for the party people
In the wake of the potato famine the Irish brought Halloween to the colonies and this is when the hard-core Halloweeners (aka Americans) jumped on the ghost wagon and got the party started. By the 1920s and 1930s people really started getting into the boozy swing of things. At this point, vandalism started to become part of the holiday’s tradition but this curbed a little bit in the 1950s. After the war years there was a baby boom and Halloween became a holiday directed at the kiddies.
And the one Halloween tradition we forgot about?
Forget tinder and Valentines Day. Halloween used to be a day of love. In 18th century Ireland a matchmaking cook might bury a ring in a pile of mashed potatoes hoping to bring true love to the diner who finds it (sounds hygienic) and in Scotland fortunetellers would recommend young women name a hazelnut for each of her suitors and toss them in the fire. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding represented the woman’s future hubby. A romantic holiday, who’d have thought? Maybe that's why all those guys were hitting on you last October 31st (although perhaps that was just the sexy nurse costume)?
Photo by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash