Halloween – From Celtic Festival to Trick-or-Treat

Posted by Claire Percy, Senior Marketing Executive

The Halloween activities of pumpkin carving, trick-or-treating and fancy dress parties are well-known to most of us in Europe, North America and Canada, as well as parts of Asia. In Europe in particular, Halloween is the perfect excuse for some light relief before the onset of Winter, but how many of us know the origins of Halloween?

It’s debatable, but many historians believe it dates back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when the Celts celebrated their new year on 1st November.  They believed that on the night before new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and  the dead merged, so on 31st October they celebrated Samhain when the ghosts of the dead were able to return.

The superstitious Celts, reliant on nature’s mercy to enable them to feed their families, were understandably superstitious, believing that ghosts allowed the Celtic Priests or Druids to predict the future, which if favourable would have comforted them through the dark Winter months. As we prepare to enjoy Halloween, considering whether to dress as witch or zombie (and will anyone notice the difference from a normal day), we know that the Celts dressed up for real and for completely different reasons, wearing animal masks and costumes to ward off evil spirits, sacrificing their crops and animals to the Pagan Gods in the hope their families would live to see the Spring.

Apart from a shared date, it’s difficult to imagine today’s Halloween has anything in common with Samhain. I’m sure there are other similarities, but I could find just one common thread. It was pagan tradition to leave food and drink outside to appease spirits and discourage them from coming in for food. This lead to the Christian tradition of beggars going to doors to  ask for ‘All-Souls Cakes’ in return for which the beggar promised to pray for the household’s dead. As with Trick-or-Treating, if cakes weren’t forthcoming, vandalism was often the result.

For historians and theologians, the origins of Halloween are fascinating and sometimes emotive. There’s much more to know about the history of Halloween and its traditions that almost certainly originated with the Celts, possibly with the Romans and later, its part in Catholic tradition; about how it was taken by immigrants to North America and the fact that it’s still revered or even banned in some parts of the world; and also how we went from All Hallows Day to Halloween. Historians of science may be interested to know that it was at some point believed that the laws of space and time were temporarily suspended, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living!

To coincide with 31st October, Ashgate has published a new Death Studies catalogue covering all aspects of death, dying, immortality and commemoration. The books featured cover History, Literature, Religion, Law, Social Science and Philosophy. We hope that you find this compelling collection of books to be of interest.

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