The history of Halloween

More than 2000 years ago in what is now England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales there lived tribes of people called Celts. The druids, the Celtic priests honored, among others, the god of the dead called Samhain. They celebrated Samhain’s festival between the evening of October 31 and November 1. The Celts used to believe that this god could control the spirits of the dead. They also believed that on the night of October 31 Samhain would gather the souls of those who had died during the previous year and that he would make them pay for the sins by putting them into animal bodies. The greater the sinner a person had been, the lower the animal in which his body was put. That is why people believed that all kinds of spirits, fairies and ghosts used to roam the earth during that night.

What is more, the Samhain’s festival marked the end of the summer and the beginning of the winter darkness. Due to that the arrival of witches and demons was absolutely justified. To frighten and scare away those evil spirits the Celts used to light huge bonfires on hills. The bonfires however, also meant to honor the divinity of the Sun, which helped the farmers to crop the land. They worshipped the Sun and were worried about its fading away in autumn, hoping it would return. They used to sit by the bonfires asking for the return of the Sun in spring. The next morning, on November 1 they would return homes with chunks of still glowing wood from the bonfires to use it with cooking fires and prepare huge feasts. In this way the Celts wanted to help the Sun strengthen before the battle with winter. They also would dress up in animal skins which was supposed to serve as protection against bad luck. This custom survived until recent years.

On the other hand the ancient Romans used to hold the festival of Pomona, the goddess of fruit, garden and apples. The Romans would thank the goddess for good harvest with fruit sacrifices and merry games. When they conquered the Celts in Europe, they also brought the Celtic customs with them and as the result were holding a great autumn festival.

In the 9th century the Roman Catholic Church established All Hallows or All Saints’ Day on November 1 to honor all the saints who had no separate day of their own. Also, the Church hoped to replace in this way all the pagan ceremonies. But in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church there emerged a cult of the Witches with its followers called Hallowe’en – the Night of the Witches. They believed that on that night the Devil and his court would come and perform some wicked acts. So, despite the Church’s attempt to convert the day of November 1 into a religious holiday, the Night of the Witch has survived over centuries until now. People all over the world continue those pagan celebrations on the evening before All Hallows and in this way October 31 became known as All Hallows Even, in short Hallowe’en.

Now we are proceeding do the most famous legend about Halloween which explains why we use a light in a curved pumpkin in Halloween evenings…

There was once an old man called Stingy Jack who was taking great pleasure in tricking, scaring and harming people. Once he invited the devil for a dinner, but didn’t want to pay for it and decided to trick the devil. Jack convinced the devil to change into a coin which they could use to pay for the meal. As soon as the devil did so, Jack quickly put the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross which stopped the devil from changing back into his original form. Eventually Jack freed the devil from his pocket, but under one condition – that the devil wouldn’t bother him for a year. The devil came back after a year. When they were walking together they came to a tree heavy with big, red apples. Jack suggested picking some of them and so the devil climbed up onto Jack’s shoulders and jumped to a branch to collect the biggest fruit he could find. Now, very quickly, Jack carved a


cross on the tree trunk which made it impossible for the devil to get down. This time Jack promised to set the devil free under the condition to never claim his soul. And the devil agreed. But before the next Halloween Jack died and his soul needed a place to rest. The God refused to take such a bad guy to heaven. The devil didn’t let him be a part of hell as well, as Jack made him promise never to take his soul. And so the devil sent Jack back to the dark night with a burning coal from the furnaces of hell to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip which over the years has become a pumpkin. Since then on every Halloween night Jack roams endlessly with his jack-o’-lantern, because his soul got stuck between the heaven and the hell.

Jack and his lantern became the symbol of a lost or damned soul. To scare these souls away on Halloween, people in Ireland carved or painted faces on turnips and placed them in windows or doorways. In America, Irish immigrants discovered that turnips were hard to get, but pumpkins were plentiful. So they started to make their lanterns out of pumpkins, a fruit native to America.

The custom of collecting sweets with the words „trick or treat” in fact was used by children and people to save themselves from ghosts. It was believed that the real ghosts wandering on the night of Halloween think of those disguised people as one of their own and stay away from them. Most probably ancient Ireland is the source of the trick-or- treating custom. The tradition of dressing up has its origin not only in the pagan times. The Roman Catholic Church of Ireland organized performances on November 1, on the day of All Hallows. Actors dressed up either as the saints or as devils. After the dressing up the peculiar procession marched from the church out to the churchyard. There the play continued for hours, until late evening. Time passed and people in Ireland started thinking of Hallowe’en as a night for putting on costumes. Gradually costumes varied from those of a horse, saints or a devil to ghosts, witches and goblins. People believed that in this way the demons would take them for the own, as was mentioned earlier here, and would leave them alone. Finally, with time the custom of dressing up and trick-or-treating were combined. Young people would travel from house to house shouting „Trick or treat!”. When they were given a treat they thanked and merrily went to the next door. If they received nothing, they performed a trick.

Listen to the episode #05 about Halloween:

#05 Halloween