Happy Halloween – but what does it all mean?

Pumpkin LanternWe’re looking forward to lots of spooky goings on in and around Pant in the next few days, but have you ever wondered how Halloween came about and why we celebrate all things ghostly and ghoulish on 31 October?

Sometimes it might seem that Halloween is just the latest American import, given how popular the festival is in the United States. But Halloween started in Europe long ago and developed as Christianity spread around the world.

In pagan times, the Celtic festival of Samhain was held on or around 1 November. Samhain marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the dark winter months and was a time when spirits were said to be most active and when the souls of the dead revisited their homes. People made offerings to keep the spirits on side and welcomed the dead by setting places at dinner for departed relatives.

Today’s Halloween customs are mainly Christian in origin. Halloween is the evening before All Hallows’ Day (also called All Saints’ Day) and was traditionally known as All Hallows’ Eve. All Hallows’ Day was originally held in the month of May, but in the 9th Century the Pope switched it to 1 November to coincide with Samhain, possibly because of Celtic influence. The word Halloween dates from around the middle of the 18th Century.

By the end of the 12th Century, bells were being rung for the souls of the dead and ‘soul’ cakes were being made and shared for all Christian souls on All Hallows’ Eve. Groups of children would go from door to door collecting soul cakes in return for offering prayers to the dead – said to be the origin of trick or treating.

It was traditionally thought that the souls of the dead wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day, and All Hallows’ Eve provided the last chance for them to take revenge on their enemies before they moved on to the next world. So, people would dress up to hide their identities – as we do today at Halloween.

Many Christians in Europe also believed that once a year on All Hallows’ Eve the dead rose from their graves for a wild carnival known as the danse macabre. This was re-enacted by children from the 16th Century onwards and is seen as the reason why we have costume parties at Halloween.

The carved Halloween lantern is supposed to frighten away evil spirits and was traditionally made out of a turnip. The pumpkin was introduced from North America much more recently and has only been associated specifically with Halloween from the mid 19th Century.

Of course, many of the modern images we associate with Halloween are much more recent and are influenced by Gothic literature and horror films – this includes vampires, mummies, Dracula and Frankenstein.

So this year, when you’re out celebrating Halloween and helping to ward off those evil spirits, remember that you’re playing a part in a tradition going back thousands of years…