The word Halloween has Christian origins dating back to the mid 18th century and literally means “hallowed (holy) evening” also known as All Hallows Eve, which is the day before All Hallows Day.
Allhallowtide is a triduum (three day) observance within which is All Hallows’ Eve, focused on remembering the dead, saints, martyrs and departed faithful believers. There is some debate among experts as to whether the festival was Pagan or Christian in origin. The majority of scholars believe it has pagan roots, particularly from the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest and the seasonal change from autumn to winter. The fact that the festival falls between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice is a likely indicator of its origins.
All Saints Day (for honouring saints), as a Christian festival, was established in 609 AD at which time it was held in May, but was later moved to 1st November in 835 AD. By the 12th century it was commemorated by rather drab criers dressed in black, who wandered the streets ringing a mournful sounding bell. In some countries today, Christians observe the festival by going to church and lighting candles on the graves of the dead.
Celebrations of seasonal changes and equinoxes have always had a strong spiritual element, considered limited times when there is an opening between worlds providing an opportunity to commune with spirits and the dead.
The theme behind All Hallows’ Eve is to confront death by making fun of it. This fun-making has been going on for centuries and includes trick-or-treating, making “Jack-o-lanterns” (i.e. pumpkin carving), apple bobbing (or “dooking” on Scotland), costume parties and watching horror movies. Today, these activities are practised in many Western countries, but are most popular in North America.
The origin of trick or treating goes back as far as the 16th century in Scotland and Ireland, when people would go out “mumming” and “guising”, which involved dressing in costume and singing at people’s doors in exchange for food. In ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, Shakespeare mentions the practice of poor children going from door to door collecting soul cakes in exchange for praying for the dead, especially for the loved ones of any donators.
Nowadays, children rarely sing or perform, they just say “trick or treat” and often expect money rather than food. In this sense, the fun-making or performing and rewards system has rather lost its appeal. Also have a look at this photo of some children from 1900 dressed in halloween costumes that would scare the life out of modern day trick-or-treaters.
By the early 18th century, there was a burgeoning trend among youngsters for dressing up as malignant spirits and then behaving like them, which is where the thrust of today’s prankster behaviour comes from. Trick-or-treating became widespread in the US during the 1930s.
Whatever the mixed origins of this seasonal festival, it is no longer a religious event but much more about fun, mischief-making, dressing up, feasting and scaring ourselves. So carve yourself a pumpkin, dress up as a ghost, sing a song for the neighbours then settled down to watch a scary film.