It appears to be one of those occasions that people love or love to hate. There seems to be a common misconception that we have inherited the custom of dressing up and trick or treating to celebrate Halloween, from the USA. However, the origins date back much further than the mid-nineteenth century when celebrating Halloween really started to take hold in the US. This may partly have been attributed to the influx of immigrants, especially from Ireland who introduced the practice of dressing up in costumes and going from house to house to ask for food or money. By the 1920s it had become a recognised holiday in the US with parades and parties.
Historically there have been many ancient traditions and customs which took placed around the 31st October and 5th November, a few of which are mentioned below, but whatever you believe it has now become a multi million pound business, certainly in the US and the UK. Last year BBC News Magazine (29/10/10) reported that according to Planet Retail the UK spent around £280 million on goods associated with Halloween a 23 fold increase from the £12 million spent in 2001. The US spend was expected to reach £3.7 billion. The event is now bringing in so much revenue that it has become the third biggest money-spinning event in the UK calendar after Christmas and Easter. What does seem to be of questionable taste however is the conflicting display of Christian and pagan goods that are available in juxtaposition on the shelves. You can now wander down the isles of many supermarkets and budget stores and buy devil and witches costumes on one side of the isle and stock up on Christmas cards and angels on the other. Not forgetting the odd box of fireworks.
Halloween and Bonfire Night may have had a common origin dating back to pagan times when the evil spirits of darkness had to be driven away with noise and fire. In England the day of fires became 5th November, known commonly as Bonfire Night, the anniversary of the Gunpowder plot of 1605. In many places in England the 4th November was also celebrated as “Mischief Night” when boys played jokes on their neighbours.
A ninth century European custom held at this time of year, called ‘souling’ can also be linked to the activities of Halloween. This was a Christian festival where people would go from house to house begging for soul cakes, in return for which they promised to pray for the giver’s deceased relatives.
Around 2,000 years ago the festival called ‘Samhain (pronounced Sow-in) was introduced into Britian by the Romans, it combined their festivals for remembering the dead and honouring the goddess, Pomona who was the goddess of the trees and fruits. Apple games may have become associated with Halloween because of this.
For the Celts, who lived in Ireland, Britain and France, the 31st October was the eve of their New Year. This marked the end of the summer and the beginning of winter the “dark season” which brought long hours of darkness for the spirits to manifest themselves and was a time often associated with death. On this night it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. It was a special time for the Druids and to mark the occasion the Druids built huge sacred bonfires where crops and animal were burnt in sacrifice. The Celtic priests wore costumes, consisting of animal heads and skins. .
Going even further back in time to circa 835 AD the Roman Catholic Church also made 1st November a church holiday to honour all the saints. In medieval times it was also the eve of All Souls Day or All Saints Day, and in it became customary to pray for the dead on this date. It is believed that the name ‘Halloween’ derives from ‘All Hallow’s Eve’; ‘Hallow’ being an ancient English word for ‘saint’.
The list of associated festivals and customs is long and varied but whatever you believe it does seem to be a mystical time of year.