Nowadays (although maybe not so much this year), Halloween is all about dressing up, trick-or-treating, scary movies and scream parks but it wasn’t always this way. Pumpkins weren’t even the original vegetable of choice for Jack-o’-lanterns! Read on to find out how Halloween came to be the spookiest festival on the calendar.
Samhain and the Earliest Origins
Halloween is often thought to have its earliest origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which is still celebrated by Pagans and Wiccans to this day. Samhain marks the end of the harvest season and the move into the darker and colder part of the year. Coming in at the midpoint between the autumn equinox (Mabon) and winter solstice (Yule), Samhain is believed to be the point at which the veil between our world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest. This Otherworld is the realm of mystical beings such as fairies and possibly even the land of the dead.
The Samhain festivities would usually last around three days and involve a mixture of feasting, guising and the lighting of symbolic bonfires. Over time, as Christianity was brought to the Celtic lands, some believe All Saint’s Day was introduced as a Christian alternative to the Pagan festival. All Saint’s Day is celebrated on the 1st November with All Souls’ Day, a festivity about remembering and honouring the dead, following the day after.
Trick-or-Treating and Halloween Costumes
Our fondest Halloween traditions of dressing up and going door-to-door asking for food dates back several centuries. The British tradition of mumming, whereby an acting troupe would use mime to act out a scene for cash, was commonplace at many yearly festivities. Although, you’d be more likely to see the mummers at Christmas than Halloween back in the Middle Ages.
Another theory as to the origins of trick-or-treating comes from the idea that when the veil to the Otherworld is thinned out and the spirits come trooping through, they can be kept at bay by leaving offerings of food out for them. Alternatively, the custom might have developed from the old tradition of souling. This was when beggars would go house-by-house asking for soul-cakes to eat over Allhallowtide.
As all of these traditions and early stages of the Halloween we know and love today evolved, going to houses in Halloween costumes for treats carrying Jack-o’-lanterns were brought into the fray in the nineteenth century. The concept of the Jack-o’-lantern originated in Ireland and quite possibly took its name from the folkloric figure of Stingy Jack. This infamous drunkard made a deal with the Devil so that he would never have to go to Hell but, being too sinful to enter Heaven, his soul was destined to roam the Earth forevermore with only a candle in a turnip to light his way. That’s right, the earliest Jack-o’-lanterns were made from turnips. The pumpkin version popular today comes from North America.
From Then to Now
Our current Halloween traditions have taken a strange route through a pretty tangled historical web. And, as so many of these stories come from rural parts of the UK and Ireland where local customs weren’t well-documented, all of these ideas about where our Halloween traditions come from are mostly theories based on what facts historians do know for certain. It’s likely our current ways of celebrating the season, like pumpkin carving and dressing up in costumes, come from a mixture of all of the above. In a way though, isn’t there something wonderfully mysterious about the fact that we don’t really know exactly how the spookiest season of them all came to be how it is today?
Don’t forget I’m going to be posting Halloween-related content all month so come back tomorrow for Blogobter Day 3!