Hallowe’en History – where did it all begin?
Hallowe’en is one of the biggest celebratory calendar dates of the year and a perfect excuse to dress up for spooky fun, parading the streets and knocking on the neighbours doors for treats. People often say that Hallowe’en is an American import but in fact its origins lie here on these shores.
Over 2000 years ago the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain celebrated the end of the harvest each Autumn. The Gaels feared that at harvest time the line between life and death was thin and spirits could pass into the living World and ruin their crops. Rather than fear these spirit enemies they laid extra places at their feast tables to appease the spirits and keep them sweet. Lessons for today methinks.
Turnips and Pumpkins
The Celts also bobbed apples and carved faces into turnips to ward off spirits and keep the faeries away. Much later, as Irish settlers moved to the U.S. they found the much more colourful and easily carvable pumpkin and the rest of this particular Hallowe’en tradition is history. Today’s carved creations can either be truly wonderful art pieces or the simplest wonky triangle eyes and a jaggedy mouth – both are equally fabulous in my view.
Dressing up on Hallowe’en has also been around as long as the festival itself; the Celts dressed as souls of the dead and the slightly later Christian festival of All Hallows also involved dressing up as the dead, for the all important Hallows Mass. Fast forward several centuries and the Victorians brought their gothic style to Hallowe’en costumes, a huge influence that still plays a strong part today. More recently, and this is an American introduction; costumes have moved away from the scary to the cute or even sexy. I rue the day the spook went out of Hallowe’en and I don’t reckon witches are meant to be sexy. In the UK I think we’re holding onto the spooky feel and I think that’s great, just how it should be. Through all the fun and games Hallowe’en is an important way of relating to the ‘other side’ and the further away we move from that connection the less we understand and the more we have to fear what might happen at life’s end. So I say we should keep partying, ghoulishly!
Trick or Treating
The most popular modern Hallowe’en tradition of all trick or treating also originated on our own shores, rather than in the U.S. as is commonly believed. Way back in the 11th Century children roamed from door to door, dressed as angels, devils and saints, asking their neighbours for soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the souls of the dead. Later the prayers were swapped for poems and songs and then, in America, the concept of threatening to playing tricks was introduced in the 1920s. Sweets became the treat of choice and of course this has now become the most popular Hallowe’en tradition of all, for children at least.
So if you’re feasting, dressing up, carving pumpkins or knocking on your neighbours doors you are in fact getting in touch with your ancestors in a remarkably undiluted way. While we roam our city streets it’s easy enough to imagine or ancestors doing nearly the same. Even though they did have to go via the U.S. to be revitalised, the connection and the traditions remain strong across the centuries.