Historical Halloween

Recent Ebay find, Halloween photograph from 1910!

It's nearly that time of year again, the pumpkins are all ready to meet their fate! Personally, i ignore all modern plastic attempts at decoration, this year myself and Claire made our own re-used fabric pumpkins, and I have a rather lovely collection of owls I like to show off! But what annoys me most, is when all i hear is "Halloween is just an American thing, why do we have to put up with it" etc etc....

This blog is in defence of this notion, I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about it's history, if you don't mind indulging me!

Halloween wasn’t always the same celebration we experience today, it's origins date back thousands of years to the ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, (pronounced "sow-in"). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is the present day United Kingdom, Ireland and northern France, celebrated Samhain as their new year on November 1. This time marked the end of summer and harvest period and the beginning of the winter, which is a cold and dark time in this region of the world. The Celts associated the season with death and believed that on the night before Samhain the boundary between the living and the dead was distorted. They celebrated the night of October 31 when ghosts of the dead where believed to return to earth causing trouble and damaging the community’s food supply. 

The Celts observed the event by burning crops and sacrificing animals to the Celtic Gods in bonfires built by the Druids. They wore costumes, typically of animal skins and heads, to tell each others’ fortunes. And when the celebration was over, they lit their hearth fires from the sacred bonfire to protect them during the coming months.  

Druids burned huge sacrificial wooden effigies known as wicker men atop sacred hilltop sites. The wicker men were sometimes filled with animals, prisoners of war, criminals, and other sacrifices to Druid deities. So yes, the famous film does actually have some truth...ish...!

Of course, when the Romans invaded they would have taken on these influences too, combining their festivals of Feralia (a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead) with Pomona (the Roman Goddess of fruit and trees). Pomona’s symbol is the apple and was incorporated into the celebration of Samhain. This probably explains the modern day tradition of bobbing for apples, practised on Halloween!

Snap-Apple Night (1832) by Daniel Maclise.
Depicts apple bobbing and divination games at a Halloween party in Blarney, Ireland.

Classic symbols of Halloween formed over time, for example, the carving of jack-o'lanterns comes from the souling custom (on All Souls Day, a Roman Catholic day of remembrance for friends and loved ones who have passed away) of carving turnips into lanterns as a way of remembering the souls of the departed that were held in purgatory. The turnip has traditionally used in Ireland and Scotland at Halloween, but immigrants to North America used the native pumpkin instead. The American tradition of pumpkin carving in recorded in 1837 and was originally associated with harvest time in general, not becoming specifically associated with halloween until the mid-to-late 19th century!

 "The Pumpkin Effigy" Ireland, September 1875

Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Europe was seized by a hysterical fear of witches, leading to the persecution of thousands of innocent women. Witches were thought to ride flying brooms and to assume the form of black cats. Creatures such as owls, crows and ravens were thought to also represent witches, hence their featuring in Halloween decorations. These images of witches soon joined other European superstitions as symbols of Halloween.

 A Witch in the middle of the 15th Century
As for trick or treating,

"The custom of begging for food from house to house on Halloween came for the old Catholic soul-sale custom. Once charitable in nature, "souling" took a popular turn as it evolved over the years. Irish Halloween begging always involved a masquerade... but who did the begging and what they were after varied from region to region. In Ireland's County Cork, a mummers' procession marked All Hallows...Prosperity was promised to those who gave food, drink or money to the revelers...This custom of taking a masquerade from house to house and asking for food or money was one practised in America on Guy Fawkes Day, and for some years even on Thanksgiving. The Irish Halloween masquerade proved so popular it eventually evolved into 20th-century American trick-or-treating."
---Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History, Lesley Pratt Bannantyne [Pelican Publishing:Gretna LA] 1998 (p. 67, 71)  
 American 1930's Trick or Treaters

Of course, when the new settlers arrived in America, the folk traditions they took with them from the UK continued to evolve and develop overseas, giving us the popularity of Halloween in America today, and it's officially their second favourite holiday (after Christmas of course!). 

In the UK, we seemed to have lost certain ties to our original intentions of All Hallows Eve, but I know there are still many people celebrating it's origins in nature and folklore.

Hope that was an enjoyable read! I certainly enjoyed the research, I could have gone on and on and on......but i'll save it for next year! :)

Just thought i'd add in my own attempt at Halloween decoration,

Have a great weekend everyone, Happy Halloween!



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