Do you know the true origins of Halloween?
Now that the summer months have ended and the autumnal atmosphere has crept in, most people would agree that the next big event in the calendar is Halloween.
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In recent years, I’ve felt that Halloween has become more of a novelty than a national holiday—an opportunity for children to stockpile sweets and yet another excuse for uni students to get drunk.
Far from being just a bit of fun, however, the holiday’s popular traditions and themes are actually rooted in folklore and rich history. Most of these have survived to modern day, though many of us take them for granted.
For instance, the jack-o-lantern is possibly the most iconic symbol of Halloween and is sure to be one of the first things that comes to mind when anyone’s thinks of the occasion. Few people question why we carve scary faces into candlelit pumpkins. This tradition started with turnips in Ireland and stems from an Irish myth about ‘Stingy Jack’. The story goes that Stingy Jack tricked the devil; he convinced him to turn into a coin, to pay for his drinks. Stingy Jack then kept the coin next to a holy cross, which prevented the devil from returning to his original form. Stingy Jack released the devil on the condition that, upon his death, the devil would not claim his soul. When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into Heaven. Since the devil could not claim him, Stingy Jack’s spirit was forced to roam the Earth every night for eternity, with only a burning coal to guide him.
Irish and Scottish villagers began to carve scary faces into turnips, with the hope that it would frighten away Stingy Jack’s spirit and protect their homes. This tradition accompanied immigrants to the United States. Pumpkins (native to America) became the perfect substitute for turnips.
This ancient myth, which has transpired continents and resulted in Halloween’s most prominent symbol, deserves to be known. Yet, like most of the stories from which Halloween originates, has almost been lost to history. This may not be so surprising, considering that Halloween stems from Celtic beliefs that precede Christ, in the 4th Century BC. To think that such an occasion has survived this vast passage of time is impressive.
Speaking of the Celtic religion, the most infamous event of Halloween—trick or treating—originates from this. Nowadays, trick or treating is a fun, light-hearted activity between children and their neighbours. However, it wasn’t always so wholesome—it’s actually rooted in struggle and poverty. In 1000AD, November 2nd was crowned as ‘All Souls Day’—a day dedicated to remembering the dead. This spawned the practice of ‘souling’. The poor and sick would visit wealthier families in their neighbourhood and beg for food and money; in exchange, they would pay respects to, and pray for, relatives of the household who had passed-on. This progressed to ‘guising’ in Scotland and Ireland. There, children would dress up and perform on the doorsteps of villagers to earn treats; this was likely the evolution of souling into trick-or-treating.
Halloween itself was a pre-Christian holiday known as ‘Samhain’. It was believed that, between 31st October and 1st November, the spiritual world revealed itself to mankind and the gods would play tricks on humans. The holiday was built on fear, the supernatural and trickery, to such an extent that multiple sacrifices and offerings were made each year. Samhain’s tales of monsters and folklore certainly draw similarities to some of the horror tales and imagery shared today. For example, The Dullahan, a headless man on a black horse who has the power to absorb the soul of anyone whose name he calls—this is similar in design to modern interpretations of headless horsemen. The Fomorians would be another…a supernatural race that can control the forces of nature and which dwells under the Earth and sea. Their appearance is similar to modern day depictions of giants and ogres.
The progression of Samhain—a dark period of time filled with fear, poverty and sacrifice, into a light-hearted national holiday filled with cheap thrills and sweets—is mostly forgotten or unknown today; however, it’s satisfying to know how many of the holiday’s traditions, festivities and symbols originate from our past.
Halloween is definitely much more than a novelty occasion. Maybe the holiday will evolve even further in years to come…