These days, Halloween may be one coherent celebration, but a whole mix of (sometimes opposing) cultures and traditions has gone into making it the festival we know and love today. It is widely agreed that the earliest origins of Halloween can be found in the 2,000 year old Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘sew-in’ strangely enough). This celebration marked the ending of summer and the coming of the cold, dark, winter months. It symbolised the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead, and it was believed that on the night of 31st October, ghosts of the deceased would wander the earth. Any Celt who might suddenly find himself present for a modern day celebration of Halloween would doubtless be completely prepared for the crowds of ghostly children wandering the streets (maybe a little less prepared to give out chocolate).
The Roman invasion of 43AD incorporated new elements into Samhain. In their typical way, the visiting Romans were quick to embrace local festivals, adding to them as and when they felt like it. We can credit them with the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples – as the festival marked the end of the agricultural year, the Romans were quick to involve their own goddess of fruit, her name was Pomona, and her symbol was an apple.
Not all visitors were as tolerant of local Celtic customs as the Romans, and when the Christians started to arrive early in the 7th century AD, it was clear that things were going to have to change. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory moved the date of ‘All Saints Day’ from May to the 1st November. With this sneaky move, he hoped to assimilate the Celtic Samhain into a church-approved festival without anyone really noticing. The archaic word for sacred being hallowed, ‘All Saints Day’ was more commonly known as ‘All Hallows Day’. The 31st October therefore became ‘All Hallows Eve’, and from there (allowing for a few historic spelling mistakes) we get our name of ‘Halloween’. ‘All Hallows Eve’ was believed to be the single night of the year when magic was at its strongest; when witches and demons could come and dwell among mortals; and all sorts of creepy goings-on took place.
It’s easy to see where the spooky Halloween traditions stem from, and despite the rich history of this festival, it’s probably not surprising to learn that a lot of the things we associate most with modern Halloween (such as trick-or-treating) are actually fairly recent arrivals from our American cousins! So much for historical culture.