Every year, people in western countries celebrate “All Hallows’ Evening,” contracted to Halloween or Hallowe’en, on October 31st, the Eve of the Christian feast of All Hallows (or All Saints) Day. The word Halloween first used in the 16th century around 1556 represents a Scottish variant of the fuller “All Hallows’ Even,” meaning the night before All Hallows’ Day or All Saints Day that falls on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2, the time for honoring the saints and praying for the recently departed.
According to many scholars, western European harvest festivals and festivals of the dead with possible pagan roots, particularly the Celtic Samhain originally influenced the celebration of Halloween.
The Celtic Festival of Samhain
The medieval Gaelic celebrated Samhain, the most important of the four quarter days marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the darker half of the year on October 31 or November 1 or halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
All Saints Day, introduced in the year 609 A.D. and originally celebrated on May 13, switched in 835 A.D. to November 1, the same date as Samhain, at the behest of Pope Gregory IV, as some suggest due to Celtic influence while others suggest it as a Germanic idea.
Even though the word Halloween has its origin from Christianity, some scholars think it owes its origin to the pagan Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or to Parentalia, the festival of the dead or to the Celtic festival of Samhain, the Old Irish word for “summer’s end”.
Some early Irish literatures mention that many important events in their mythology happened on Samhain. The festival of Samhain observed in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Asturias, and Galicia. Along with Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh make up the four Gaelic seasonal festivals. The Gaelic (Irish, Scottish, and Manx) also held kindred festivals at the same time of the year such as Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall) and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany).
During Samhain, the Gaelic took stock, prepared for the cold winter ahead, brought the cattle back down from the summer pastures, slaughtered livestock, lit bonfires, enacted rituals along with divination games. As a cleansing ritual, they would walk with their livestock between two bonfires, cast the bones of slaughtered livestock into its flames.
The Gaelic believed, that during Samhain, the door to the Otherworlds or realms of supernatural beings and the dead, opened just enough for the souls of the dead and other weird entities, to enter our world. They beckoned souls of the dead kin to attend the feast by setting a place at the table for them. It has thus been likened to a festival of the dead. Lewis Spence in his book “The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain” described it as a “feast of the dead” and “festival of the fairies.”
Divination also took place during Samhain. The tradition says that in places like Asturias, “Güestia”, a group of spirits from the world of the dead, go out that night, walking in the forests and on roads. People drew circles on the floor and remained within those circles until the spirits passed them.
The Tradition of Guising
The Gaelic protected themselves from harmful spirits and fairies thought to be active in Samhain by taking various steps to allay or ward-off the harmful spirits and fairies, and one of them is the custom of Guising, that influenced today’s Halloween customs.
In Scotland and Ireland, during Halloween children go from a house to house, dressed up in various costumes. They receive gifts in the form of food, coins or apples or nuts and recently chocolates.
The earliest record of Guising at Halloween comes from Scotland. In 1895, masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made by scooping out turnips visited homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruits, and money. It predates trick or treat,
In Scotland and Ireland, the people in the households expect the children who come to their houses to perform before they receive treats. The children sing or recite a joke or a funny poem which they had memorized before setting out. Some talented children may do card tricks, play the mouth organ, or do something impressive. Often the children get a treat, even if they did not perform.
While going from door-to-door in disguise, it has now become common for the children to pose the question: “Trick or treat?” The “trick” in this question happens to be an idle threat to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if they do not get the treat.
The earliest known use in print of the term “trick or treat” appears in 1927, in the article “‘Trick or Treat’ Is Demand,” Herald (Lethbridge, Alberta), November 4, 1927, p. 5, dateline Blackie, Alberta, Nov. 3.
Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at the back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.
The Tradition of Souling
The tradition of going from door to door to receive food already existed in Great Britain and Ireland in the form of “souling”. The soulers, mainly consisting of children and the poor, would go from door to door on Halloween singing and saying prayers for the dead in return for small round soul cakes, simply called souls, traditionally made for All Saints Day or All Souls’ Day to celebrate the dead. Each cake eaten represented a soul freed from Purgatory. The practice of giving and eating soul cakes perhaps might be the origin of modern trick-or-treating.
The Tradition of Making Jack-o’-lanterns
The tradition of making lanterns during Halloween may have sprung from Samhain and Celtic beliefs. In the 19th century in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands people made turnip lanterns sometimes with faces carved into them during Samhain. The lanterns may serve three ways: to light one’s way while outside on Samhain night, to represent the spirits and otherworldly beings and entities, to protect oneself and one’s home from them.
Traditional Irish Jack-o’-Lantern
Modern carving of a Cornish Jack-o’-Lantern made from a turnip.
Jack-o’-lantern lit from within by a candle.
Jack-o’-lanterns derived their names from the phenomenon of strange light flickering over peat bogs, called ignis fatuus or jack-o’-lantern.
A modern jack-o’-lantern is typically a carved pumpkin. After cutting the top of the pumpkin, the flesh inside is scooped out. An image, usually a monstrous face, is carved out, and the lid replaced.