The History of Halloween

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Trick or Treat?

Halloween’s round the corner, so let’s take a look at the history of Halloween, the ancient pagan festival that is now celebrated in many parts of the world!

Halloween was historically celebrated by the Celts as Samhain (“Suh-win”), an end-of-harvest festival prior to the onset of winter. According to Gaelic belief, this was also the day when the boundaries separating the realms of the living and the dead dissolved. The denizens of the spirit world, thought the Celts, return to life on this day and wreak chaos upon human life, such as illnesses and crop damage. The ancient Celts would sport ghoulish masks and attire, perhaps hoping to please the vengeful spirits abroad.
The practice of ‘trick-or-treat’, where children dress up as ghosts and witches and go around neighbourhood homes and stores  asking for treats may have its roots in a practice known as ‘souling’ from the  Middle Ages. Every Hallowmas (1st November), the poor would knock on people’s doors for food, promising in return to pray for deceased members of their benefactors’ families on All Soul’s Day ( 2nd November).

Halloween travelled to the USA with Irish, English and Scottish immigrants. In some of these communities, children would do “guising”, or going door to door, begging for ‘treats’ like candy or money. Householders who refused to indulge them would be at the receiving end of pranks. “Guising” remained an isolated practice in America in the early 1900s, but took off from the 1920s and later, in the mid-20th century. Trick-or-treating evolved into an established ‘ritual’ and elaborate Halloween parties, fuelled by stores mass producing Halloween costumes, became the norm. 

The Jack-o’-Lantern, a grinning, carved pumpkin lit inside with a candle, is another Halloween staple with several Celtic legends attached to it. In one myth, Jack was a thief being chased by irate villagers when the Devil appeared, declaring the end of his life. But Jack used a ruse to trap the Devil and later let him off in exchange for never taking his soul. When Jack eventually died, he could neither go to heaven, as he had sinned too much, nor could he enter hell. Doomed to wander, he asked the Devil for help in finding his way.

The Devil threw him an eternally glowing ember from Hell. Jack carved out a turnip and placed the ember within it, using it to light his way as he roamed the Earth endlessly, thereby earning himself the name, ‘Jack of the Lantern’.

From simple, pagan beginnings, Halloween celebrations today stretch to lavish parties, with appropriately creepy décor and music, themed menus and elaborate Halloween costumes for witches, ghosts, devils, vampires and zombies, all for a night of spooky fun!

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