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The History of Halloween

An installation of 3,000 candle-lit pumpkins
Happy Halloween, but do you know the history?

The history of Halloween can be traced back some 2,000 years to the Ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced “Sow-in”), traditionally celebrated on 1 November. Literally meaning “summer’s end”, Samhain represented the changing of the seasons. It marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. With the land dying, brown replacing green, the Celts believed the boundary between this world and the next was at its thinnest during this time.

On the night before Samhain, October 31, people believed the souls of the dead, known as the Aos Sí (pronounced “Ees shee”) were freed from the otherworld and allowed to roam the earth once again. A giant bonfire was lit and crops and animals were burnt as sacrifices for these spirits, who were both respected and feared. People would also leave food and drink outside their homes to appease the Aos Sí. It was custom to dress up in costume as a way of both honouring the good spirits and hiding from the malevolent ones.

With the spread of Christianity, the early Church in England began to Christianise the old Celtic festivals. In the 9th Century AD the Church officially switched All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows’ Day) from13 May to 1 November, the same day as Samhain. The night before became All Hallows’ Eve, later shortened to Halloween. Some of the Celtic traditions were kept or merged as a way of easing the conversion process.

Medieval Britain saw the introduction of ‘souling’ and ‘guising’, the original traditions behind trick-or-treating. On All Souls Day (November 2), the poor, often groups of children, would go around well-to-do houses and beg for money, apples, ale or special cakes known as ‘soul cakes’. In return they would pray for the dead relatives of the givers. Originally the distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way of replacing the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits.

Guising saw children dressing up in costumes and going from door-to-door in disguise asking for a gift of food. In exchange they would often sing or recite poetry. Harking back to the traditions of the Samhain, it is suggested that those out ‘guising’ personified the old spirits of the winter, who demanded a reward in exchange for good fortune.

Halloween can be traced back some 2,000 years

During the 19th Century in Ireland, the light of choice for a guiser was often a hollowed out turnip, acting as a lantern. These were carved with grotesque faces and were said to represent the spirits, being used either to frighten people or to ward the spirits off.  These became known as jack-o’-lanterns.

During the 19th Century, with the mass immigration of many English, Scottish and Irish to America (many from Ireland escaping the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s), they discovered pumpkins were a perfect fit for their jack-o’-lanterns. These immigrants also brought with them the old traditions of Halloween. By the early 20th century it was being celebrated coast to coast by people of all backgrounds and it was during this time in America that modern day trick-or-treating became established.

At first it was more about the tricks than it was the treats, with the 1920s seeing a particularly destructive period of excessive pranking in many metropolitan areas. This trend was ended during WW2 with the introduction of sugar rationing and during the 1950s the custom took on its current family-friendly, kid-centered form.

As the popularity of Halloween has grown, so has its commercial value. Today, it is big business with consumers set to spend over £300m on Halloween in 2017, making it the UK’s third biggest retail event after Christmas and Easter.