A History of Halloween

Today, millions of us, the World over, will enjoy a “Happy Halloween” and will dress up in all manner of costumes before heading out to trick or treat our way around our neighbourhoods or, in some cases, further afield.

In England, in recent years, probably due to the influence of American films and TV shows, Halloween has seen a tremendous growth in popularity and has even knocked what was, certainly when I was a boy, the celebration of Bonfire night into the position of an also ran.


It is also a great day on which to gather round a guttering candle, swap ghost stories and recite creepy poems in the dark.

In keeping with this tradition, here’s one I made earlier!


But what are the origins of Halloween, and how did the activities that we associate with it come in to being?

The Celtic Calendar was divided into two seasons Beltane and Samhain (pronounced Sowen) – the season of life or growth and the season of death.

The day we now know as November 1st was the start of the Celtic New Year, but and more significantly – it was the start of winter, the season of death.


Since the Celtic day ran from sunset to sunset it began in darkness; and the Celts believed that in the darkness on this day our World and the Other World came together.

The dead could, therefore, return to the places where their living selves had lived.

It was believed that swarms of spirits poured into our World and that not all of them were friendly.

So methods were devised to keep malignant spirits at bay.

Bonfires would be lit to ward off evil spirits and to scare away ghosts. Light was, therefore, seen as being victorious over the darkness.


Fire Was An Important Part of the Celebration
Fire Was An Important Part of the Celebration

It has to be said that many of the theories about Celtic practices that were popular at this time of year came to us from later folklorists and, therefore, they have little basis in historical fact – or, at least, have no evidence to back them up.

One oft repeated custom is that the Celts carved the images of spirit-guardians onto turnips or gauds and placed fires inside them. They then set these “Jack O’ Lanterns” before their doors to keep out unwelcome visitors from the Other World.

Although this practice did, undoubtedly, go on, it wasn’t just confined to Samhain and it was, in fact, simply a means of lighting in the days before mass produced lanterns, gaslight and modern electric light.


Another frequently repeated “fact” is that the Celts believed that fairies were on the loose on this night.

Fairies were feared by our ancestors, and it was an established belief that they liked rewards and that they would mete out punishment to anyone who dared cross them.

They were particularly fond of disguising themselves as beggars and, thus attired, they would go from door to door seeking handouts.

If you gave them food you would be rewarded, but, if you refused, then they would use their powers to punish you with some misfortune.


So, although we know that the Celts most certainly celebrated at this time of year, we cannot be 100% certain as to exactly how they celebrated, since they left no written records behind and it is, therefore, difficult to ascertain with any degree of certainty which of the customs we now associate with Halloween are, in fact, Celtic in origin.


Indeed, as with so many popular celebrations, that of the modern Halloween is an amalgamation of several different cultural beliefs.


The Roman Goddess Pamona holding an apple.
The Goddess Pamona

When the Romans Conquered the Celts, their festival of the harvest was celebrated around the same time as the festival of Samhain; and since the two cultures were now co-existing their beliefs began to merge.

One example of this is that the Roman goddess of fruits was Pamona and she was always depicted holding an apple and thus apples were assimilated into the celebration, which may well have been the origin of bobbing for apples on Halloween.


As yet, you may have noticed that I have not used the term Halloween to describe this day with regard to Celtic celebrations.

The reason that I haven’t is simply because Halloween was, in fact, a creation of the Christian church.

In AD 601 Pope Gregory 1st issued a famous edict to his missionaries advising them not to attempt to interfere too much with native customs and beliefs but rather to absorb them.

So, for example, if an indigenous people saw a particular location as sacred, then the Christian missionaries should respect this fact by building a church there.

This amalgamation of the new religion with that of the old can still be seen in several churchyards around the country where standing stones often sit alongside the church building itself.

An intriguing example of this can be seen in the churchyard of All Saints Church at Rudstone in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where the church appears to cower beneath the largest prehistoric standing stone in Britain, which sits (or stands) alongside it.

Thus the Christian religion was able to spread by a process of assimilation as opposed to one of obliteration.

The Rudstone MOnolouth stands alongside a church.
The Rudstone Monolith


However, many of the old pagan celebrations clung on tenaciously and absolutely refused to die out, particularly in respect of Samhain.

Pope Gregory’s successor, Boniface 1V, decided, therefore, to offer Christians an alternative celebration by establishing All Saints Day on the 13th May.

However, since this was a Holy Day, as opposed to a festival, people saw no problem with celebrating both.


These dual celebrations appear to have co-existed for over a hundred years until, in the 8th century, Pope Gregory 111 officially designated November 1st as All Saints Day.

The mass that was celebrated on this day was called All Hallows Mass (the mass of All the Holy Ones) and the evening before it became All Hallow E’en (the evening of all the holy ones) or, as we now know it, Halloween.

Although people still continued to celebrate in the manner that their ancestors had done, the festivities were Christianized, albeit bonfires were still lit as an important part of the celebrations.


And then Martin Luther arrived on the scene.

His reforms of the Catholic Church gave rise to the Protestant faith, the followers of which didn’t believe in saints.

Of course, if saints didn’t exist, then you couldn’t celebrate All Saints Day, and if there wasn’t an All Saints Day, then there couldn’t be a Halloween.

As a consequence, a festival of ancient origin was in danger of dying out.


In England, the problem was solved by the Gunpowder Plot – a Catholic conspiracy to blow up a Protestant King (James 1) and his Parliament.

Guy Fawkes may have been a minor player in the plot but he provided a way for Protestant England to resurrect an ancient festival and the celebration of the failure of his plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament became Bonfire Night.


The celebrations associated with Samhain were simply moved forward a few days to November 5th, on which day bonfires were lit, lanterns were carved out of turnips and costumed children went about begging for money.

“Penny for the guy” became the echoing cry of generations of children in Britain well into the latter years of the 20th century until there came a shift back to Halloween as the favoured celebration at this time of the year.


The modern Halloween, as we in Britain know it, is in fact an import – or, to be more precise, a re-import of an export – and its origins can be traced back to post Civil War America.

By this time Catholics and Episcopalians were the only people in America who celebrated All Saints Day; and they numbered less than 5% of the American population.

Not wishing to see their heritage die out, the two religions began an aggressive campaign to put All Saints Day on the public calendar.

The first year that it did show up on the Calendar, newspapers and magazines made a huge song and dance about it and, suddenly, everyone began celebrating Halloween by lighting bonfires and holding masquerade parties.


A celebration of snap apple night.
Snap Apple Night In Ireland

From the mid 1840’s millions of immigrants began arriving in America, amongst them significant numbers of Irish Catholics and Scots, who brought with them from the old World their  own celebrations, one of which was the Jack O’Lantern.

Once they saw how plentiful pumpkins were in the New World, they began carving their lanterns out of these instead of turnips.

Another custom that came over with these newly arrived immigrants was the telling of fortunes and divination.


Scottish and northern English immigrants also brought with them their Mischief Night Celebrations, whereby small boys would go around playing pranks on householders.

At first these were innocent tricks that consisted of  doing things like removing gates, soaping windows and switching shop signs.

But, in the 1920’s, the pranks became less innocent and more malevolent in nature, often resulting in damage to property and actual injury to people and animals.


In an attempt to curb the anti social behaviour that was rapidly becoming synonymous with the celebration, neighbourhood committees and local city clubs, such as the Boy Scouts, launched as “Safe Halloween” campaign and began advocating safe and fun alternatives to vandalism.

They positively encouraged good children to go door to door and receive treats from homes and shop owners, thereby keeping troublemakers away.


By the 1930’s, these “beggar’s nights” were enormously popular and were being practiced all over America, with the “trick or treat” greeting becoming widespread from the late 1930’s.”

Indeed, the first traceable mention of trick or treating appeared in a Los Angeles Times article on October 30, 1938.

It informed readers:-

“”Trick or treat!” is the Halloween hijacking game hundreds of Southern California youngsters will play tomorrow night as they practice streamlined versions of traditional All Hallows Eve pranks. The preparations are simple: a bar of soap, some old films and a couple of Times funny papers clipped into confetti. From house to house the boys and girls will travel, punching doorbells with nerve-jangling peals.”

From the 1960’s onward, as American culture began to spread back to the old country by way of television and cinema screens, Halloween was “re-adopted” across the United Kingdom, with the result that, today, it has superseded Bonfire night as the major festival celebrated at this time of year.


So, briefly, that is how the celebrations that we will be indulging in today came in to being.

It only remains for me to wish you all a very happy Halloween, no matter where or how you are celebrating it.

And, as you awake tomorrow morning, may I also wish you a worry and a trouble free Samhain!