Pagan rituals and Catholic customs may be behind many of the traditions that have come to define modern Halloween, the world’s most popular ghoulish festival.
1. Hallowed be thy name
The word Halloween comes from the term “All Hallows Even”. This was the night before the Catholic holiday All Saints’ Day, which was a religious festival on November 1 that honoured all the saints. The festival is also known as All Hallows – “hallows” being an old word for a saint or holy person.
Halloween is therefore the eve of All Saints’ Day.
Carving faces into pumpkins evolved from ancient pagan customs. The Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced “sah-win” or “sow-in”) was a celebration that marked the end of the summer and the beginning of the winter. Bonfires were essential to the Samhain celebrations – a time when the undead were thought to walk among the living. The Celts believed the fires had the power to scare away evil spirits. Crops and animal sacrifices were burned as offerings to the gods.
When the bonfires were dying, it was thought to be good luck to take an ember home to relight their hearth fires. The Celts carried these embers in hollowed-out turnips or gourds into which they carved faces to scare away any evil spirits.
The practice inspired the Jack-o’-lantern folktale – a story about a miserly farmer who tricked the Devil and made a lantern out of a turnip to light his way after being denied entry to heaven and hell. The story was created to teach children the practice and encourage moral lessons.
The Irish famine emigrants brought the turnip lantern-making tradition to America in the 19th century. They began using pumpkins because they were easier to carve and more available than turnips.
While the exact origins of trick-or-treating are unclear, this Halloween tradition has been likened to the old Christian practice of “souling”. Poor people – mainly children – would go from door to door and beg for food on All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day in exchange for prayers for the dead, particularly for friends and relatives of the givers.
The custom has been practised in Britain and parts of Europe. Playwright William Shakespeare even mentioned the practice in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
4. Dressing in costume
The pagan Celts believed the walls between worlds were thinnest at the time of the Samhain festival, which allowed ghosts and spirits to pass through into the earthly world and walk among the living. The Celts disguised themselves as ghouls during the festivities – donning animal heads and skins – so mischievous spirits would mistake them for fellow ghosts.
It has also been suggested the souls of the dead wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day. This meant All Hallows’ Eve was the last opportunity for spirits to seek vengeance on their enemies before they moved on to the next life. People dressed in costume or wore masks to disguise themselves and avoid being recognised.
5. Black and orange
The traditional Halloween colours of black and orange are likely to have also been inspired by the Samhain festival. Although the pagan festival marked the changing of the seasons, it was also a celebration of autumn and the harvest. Orange has been said to symbolise the crops and colour of the changing leaves, while black most likely represents the “death” of summer and the long dark days of winter ahead.
6. Toffee apples
This sugary treat, popular in America, has roots in a blend of Celtic and Roman traditions. The ancient Roman harvest festival celebrated the deity Pomona – the goddess of orchards and the harvest. She was honoured with feasts of apples, nuts and other orchard fruit.
The Roman festival was celebrated at the same time as the Celtic Samhain festival. When the Romans conquered Britain, the customs of the two festivals were mixed together and apples became part of the Samhain harvest celebrations.
7. Bobbing for apples
Now a popular game commonly played on Halloween, the ancient Celts regarded apples as a sacred fruit that could foretell the future. When an apple is sliced in half, its seeds form a pentagram-like shape. The Celts regarded the pentagram as a symbol of fertility and so believed the apple, at the magical time of the Samhain festival, could predict marriages.
Young and unmarried people would attempt to bite into an apple floating in water or hanging from a string without using their hands during the festival celebrations. It was believed the first person to bite into the apple would be the next one to marry.