History: The origins of Hallowe’en

The word Hallowe’en is short for All Hallows’ Eve and refers to the evening of 31st October. This is the evening before All Saints’ Day on 1st November, celebrated in the Christian calendar. Nowadays, it is a day when people dress up as ghosts and witches, have parties and try to scare each other. Although it’s often considered a modern commercial festivity, its origins date back over 2,000 years to the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain.

The ancient festival of Samhain (pronounced saa-ween) means summer’s end. It was a festival that celebrated the end of harvest season and the start of the coldest part of the year. Many people, especially in Ireland, also believed that it was a time when the wall dividing our world from the spirit world became very thin. This meant that spirits could pass through the wall and contact people here. Nobody wanted to be recognised by bad spirits so they dressed in costumes and lit candles to keep them away. Nobody knows for sure how much the traditions of Samhain and All Saints’ Day influenced each other but now it’s difficult for most people to distinguish between them and our more modern version of Hallowe’en.

 

Culture: Trick or Treat

Nowadays people go Trick-or-Treating everywhere, but it is usually considered an American tradition. On Hallowe’en night, groups of children dress up as ghosts and vampires, knock on doors and ask ‘Trick or Treat’. Usually they’re lucky and receive cakes and sweets as a treat. But like Hallowe’en itself, the tradition is much older and dates back to Celtic times. It was originally the Irish who took their customs and traditions to North America when they moved there. These included a mix of Catholic and Celtic Hallowe’en practices.

Dressing up in costumes probably goes back to the times when the Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain. They used to dress in white, with black faces to scare bad spirits. This dressing up continued in 11th century Britain, with a tradition called souling. Children used to dress up as angels or demons and went from house to house asking for something called soul cakes. These sweet cakes represented the spirits of dead people. When they were eaten, people believed that the spirit was freed from purgatory. These beliefs are very far from the modern festival we call Hallowe’en, but they explain lots of the things we still do when we celebrate it.

 

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