What are the origins of Halloween? A Fenland writer delves into the origins of this festival

By Fenland writer, Damien O Donovan SO it s that time of year again, when children dress up in scary costumes (which generally turn out to be cute rather than terrifying) and threaten their neighbours for sweets, when adults watch films which films de

By Fenland writer,

Damien O'Donovan

SO it's that time of year again, when children dress up in 'scary' costumes (which generally turn out to be cute rather than terrifying) and threaten their neighbours for sweets, when adults watch films which films designed to make them jump or hide behind the sofa, and when vegetables are carved up and put on display. But the question is, why?

Most of the traditions we associate with the 31st October come down to us from the Celtic festival of Samhain - both a harvest festival and a festival of the dead. On this night, the border between this world and the otherworld is at its weakest, and the spirits of the dead return.


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This explains the costumes, as people began to disguise themselves as the more aggressive spirits to protect themselves from harm. Hollywood latched onto this idea, and has often timed the release of horror films to coincide with Halloween, and thus increase sales.

This was also the time for slaughtering livestock, the bones of which were often thrown into large fires to appease the spirits. In England, the tradition of these 'bone fires' (shortened now to bonfires) has been merged with the story of Guy Fawkes, and now occurs just a few days later.

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The name Halloween comes from the Christian festival of All Saints day (also referred to as All Hallows Day). The night before was called All Hallows Even and has been shortened over the years to Halloween (or Hallowe'en).

In early Christianity, this was celebrated on May 13th, but was moved under Pope Gregory III (731-741) to November 1st, in an attempt to subvert the pagan festivities which took place during Samhain.

Trick or treating began as 'souling', when the poor would beg for food or money in return for saying prayers for the dead. In Ireland and Scotland, 'guising' became popular, when children would perform a song or dance in return for a treat. As to how this was replaced with threatening people for treats is unclear, but seems to have developed in America.

It was due to the Americans again that the carving of pumpkins became common, as the traditional Samhain lantern was a carved turnip, but pumpkins are much easier to carve and turnips were rare during the settlement of North America.

And that is what Halloween is all about!

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