A Brief History of Halloween

In many countries Halloween is a relatively recent holiday, but its roots go back more than 1,000 years to a pagan Celtic festival of the dead.

From Samhain to Saints

In the Celtic lands in pre-Christian days there was a festival called Samhain (sounds something like “sow-in”). It was an end of year harvest festival and a time for remembering the dead. But then Christianity came on the scene and the early Christian Church was trying to get rid of pagan festivals by combining them with religious ones. Lucky for 9th century Pope Gregory IV, there was a Christian day that matched up quite well with Samhain: All Hallows Day.

All Hallows Day (which was later renamed as All Saints’ Day) was a day for remembering all the Christian saints who had gone before. Originally it had been a springtime celebration, but Pope Gregory moved it to 1 November to coincide, and hopefully to override the pagan holiday of Samhain.

For the Celts, sunset was the beginning of a new day, so the start of Samhain (now All Hallows Day) was the evening before 1 November. It was known as All Hallows Even (evening). By the 16th century, it had become Hallowe’en, then by the 18th century we began to drop that pesky apostrophe to make it Halloween.

Costumes

The Celtic people believed that during Samhain, the veil between earth and the spirit world was very thin and the spirits and fairies could easily pass through and visit the human world. Since this was a scary idea, they would try to appease these spirits by leaving food and drink outside for them.

They would also disguise themselves in costumes which made them resemble ghosts, ghouls, or whatever they thought the spirits looked like. This way they hoped they could pass unharmed among the roaming dead without being recognized as a human.

Trick or Treating

The Samhain celebration had lasted for 2 days: It began on the evening of 31 October and ended on the evening of 2 November. The Catholic Church had declared 1 November as All Hallows Day, but the people just continued celebrating for another day as was their Samhain tradition.

So if the people wouldn’t shorten their festivities, then the Church would just tack on another religious holiday. In 1048, 2 November became All Souls’ Day. This was a day to pray for all the dead who weren’t saints – especially those who were trapped in Purgatory.

An early form of trick or treating from the Middle Ages was called souling: Children would go from house to house singing songs or prayers for the departed. Then the occupant would give them a treat, and they would pray for his soul. There were special “soul cakes” made for this purpose (which were more like cookies). These singers sometimes carried lanterns made from hollowed out turnips or other vegetables – the forerunners of our jack-o’-lanterns.

Apples and Nuts Predict the Future

Apples and nuts are part of the Halloween and autumn tradition. Roasted nuts warm us up and taffy apples satisfy our sweet tooth. But in Halloweens past, young ladies used these foods to get a glimpse into their future and predict their prospects of marriage.

Apple Bobbing – The first young lady to succeed in picking up an apple, which was floating in a tub of water or sometimes hung on a string, using only her teeth would be the first to get married. Then if she placed that apple under her pillow, she would dream of her future spouse.

Another way they used apples to predict a future husband was to peel the apple in one long peel. When the peel was tossed over the shoulder, it would land in the shape of her future spouse’s first initial.

Mirror Gazing – It was also said that if a young woman would gaze into a mirror in a dark room on Halloween night, she could see the face of her future husband. But if she saw a skull, she would die before being married.

Roasting Nuts – After the apples had declared that she would be married and to whom, the nuts could predict whether a young lady’s union would be a happy one. She would simply get two hazelnuts, one representing her and the other representing her future spouse. She would put them in a fire and watch what happened. If they simmered and remained close to one another, her marriage would be a good one. If they popped and jumped apart, it probably wouldn’t last.

And today, we just eat nuts and apples because they taste good!

  • Fun Fact: Samhainophobia is the fear of Halloween.
  • All images in this post are in the public domain

Happy Halloween!

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Margo Lestz

Margo has authored four books about France. She has a BA in Liberal Studies with International Emphasis and enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

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