It’s October, which means Halloween, a favourite holiday of many, is drawing near! With all the festivities such as bobbing for apples, candy, trick-or-treating, and even Halloween decorations, one has to wonder from where the spirit for this holiday arose.
Halloween is very old, originating all the way back from the Pagan holiday of Samhain about two millennia ago. Samhain celebrated the end of the summer harvest, which is where the colours widely associated with Halloween come from. Black is the so-called ‘death of summer’, marking the end of the season, while orange represents the autumnal harvest. People would celebrate by wearing costumes and lighting bonfires to ward off ghosts, whilst simultaneously guiding spirits to the afterlife. The bonfires had an additional, natural effect: they would attract bugs and bats. This is how bats came to be associated with Halloween and why you might have used them to decorate. It’s similar to how black cats were thought to be a sign of the Devil and were later associated with witches; the stigma still stands. Even bonfires made a lasting impression, though we now light candles instead.
Costumes were worn for a few reasons. Since spirits were believed to have walked the earth, people would dress up to not be mistaken for one and terrorised. Additionally, food was left out for ghosts, but people would later dress up as malevolent spirits in order to take the food. This is one of the theories explaining the origin of trick-or-treating. Another theory involves the Scottish practice of ‘souling’, where children went door-to-door to receive trinkets in exchange for prayers. The tradition of Halloween pranks do originate from an Irish-Scottish tradition of ‘Mischief Night’. It’s also possible that it came from a German Christmas tradition where children asked neighbours to guess who they were in exchange for candy. Who knows? It’s possible that our modern practice is a combination of all three.
You’ve probably heard of Halloween being referred to as ‘All Hallow’s Eve’ (hallowed meaning revered) before. This is because it was meant to be the predecessor to ‘All Saints’ Day’, a holiday celebrated on the following day. Due to the ever-changing nature of our language, ‘All Hallow’s Eve’ would eventually evolve into the name you all know and love: Halloween!
A few more traditions have historical roots, and this one’s pretty obscure. Bobbing for apples actually was in honour of the Roman goddess of agriculture, Pomona. When the Romans conquered everything south of Caledonia and subsequently began the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, they began practising this tradition to honour Pomona.
This last tradition is something you might have already done: pumpkin carving! If you were being really traditional, though, you might have carved a turnip. This is yet another practice originating in Ireland! However, the actual myth of carving pumpkins comes from a man named Stingy Jack. He had apparently captured the Devil and would only release him if he promised not to drag Jack to Hell. Eventually, Jack died, but he was not accepted into Heaven. He roamed the earth as a ghost until the Devil gave him a lump of coal inside of a carved-out turnip to light his way. So your friendly jack-o-lantern is to ward off its namesake. Happy Halloween!