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The History of Halloween

Halloween marks a day where thousands of people across the country will dress up in spooky costumes, have Halloween parties, carve pumpkins and go trick or treating. But why do we celebrate Halloween and where have all these customs come from?

Halloween, or at least a form of it known as Samhain, can be traced back as far as Iron Age Britain, more than 2000 years ago. At this time of year the Iron Age people celebrated the end of one year and the start of another. It was the end of the harvest and the animal grazing season was over, meaning that most of the flock would have been culled. It was also supposedly the time when the veil between the land of the living and the land of the dead was thinnest, allowing people to commune with the spirit world. Huge bonfires would be lit in honour of the dead and offerings would be left for them. The whole community would gather around the bonfire and would dress up in elaborate animal skins and heads. The idea was that the evil spirits would be scared off by the fires. If a wandering spirit happened to meet a living person, they would think that they were a spirit too, because of the disguises. This is where the tradition of dressing up for Halloween comes from.

Iron Age people in costume, round a bonfire for Samhain.

When the Romans conquered Britain in A.D. 43 they brought with them their own festivals. They celebrated a festival called Feralia, which commemorated the passing of the dead. This festival is documented as taking place in February, which was the last month of the Roman calendar. Over time parts of this festival amalgamated with the festivals already in Britain.

Fast forward a few centuries and Britain has largely been Christianised. Some people still celebrated the old ‘pagan’ festivals and so the Catholic church attempted to replace these festivals with Christian festivals of their own design. All Souls Day was celebrated on the 2nd November, this was a day for Christians to remember ‘all the faithful departed’, which is all Christians who have died. 1st November was another festival where all Saints, both known and unknown are celebrating. This festival is known as All Saint’s Day or All Hallow’s Day. This made 31st October All Hallow’s Eve, which later became known as Halloween.

Romans celebrating at a festival, such as Feralia

Despite the new religious focus, many people continued to associate the time with dead spirits returning to the land of the living. People would leave gifts out to please the wandering spirits. The concept of Trick or Treating originated in Ireland where the poorer people would knock on the doors of rich people and ask for food, kindling or money. They would often use what they had collected for their Halloween celebrations.

The tradition of carving out vegetables at Halloween also came from Ireland, the Irish would carve out vegetables such as turnips, gourds and potatoes. The tradition of carving out pumpkins came about much later when some Irish people emigrated to America where pumpkins where readily available. There are two ideas as to where the tradition came from. One is that ancient people would hollow out a turnip so that they could place an ember from the Halloween bonfire inside and safely carry it home with them.

The other theory is that they date back to 18th Century Ireland. The story is that there was an Irish Blacksmith, named Jack, who colluded with the Devil and was denied entry into Heaven. Jack was condemned to walk the earth for eternity. Some Irish believed that hanging a lantern in their front window would keep Jack’s wandering soul away. This is why these carved vegetables became known as Jack-o-lanterns.

Halloween ghost turnip at The Museum of Country Life in Castlebar, Co Mayo

So now when you are getting ready for your Halloween party, carving your pumpkin or opening your door to give sweets to all the trick or treaters you can think back to our ancestors hundreds, or even thousands or years ago and know that they were the ones who instigated this spooky, yet fun filled tradition.

Happy Halloween!


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