Hallowe’en Has Its Roots in Pagan Celtic Tradition

When I was a child growing up in London, Ontario, the neighbourhood streets were packed on Hallowe’en with costumed children seeking sugary treats. When I bought a house in London, Ontario as an adult, I noticed that the streets were empty of trick-or-treaters on October 31st resulting in me having far too much leftover candy.

Hallowe’en has its roots in a Celtic pagan festival called Samhain (Irish pronunciation sow-in). Traditionally, Samhain is celebrated from sunset on October 31st to sunset on November 1st, halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

When converting Celtic pagans to Christianity, the Church used pre-existing festivals to lessen the changes in the lives of its converts. After Christianity was introduced, Samhain was replaced with All Saints’ Day celebrated on November 1st, while November 2nd became All Souls’ Day. Over time, Samhain and All Saints’/All Souls’ merged to create the modern Hallowe’en, a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening.

Samhain was seen as a time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed. Spirits more readily visited the physical world. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place was set for them at the family table.

Samhain also involved people going door-to-door in costume or disguise, often reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes were a way of imitating or disguising oneself from spirits. Guising is recorded in Scotland at Hallowe’en in 1895 where masqueraders in disguise carrying lanterns made out of scooped out turnips (the forerunner to jack-o-lanterns), visited homes to be rewarded with cakes, fruit and money.

In Britain, from the medieval period up until the 1930s, people practiced the Christian custom of souling on Hallowe’en, which involved groups of soulers, both Protestant and Catholic, going from parish to parish, begging the rich for soul cakes, in exchange for praying for the souls of the givers and their friends. Souling then, the custom of baking and sharing soul cakes for christened souls, is the origin of trick-or-treating. Allhallowtide soul cakes were often marked with a cross, resembling contemporary hot-cross buns, indicating that they were baked as alms.

With mass Irish and Scottish immigration in the 19th century, Halloween became a major holiday in North America. It was assimilated into mainstream society by the first decade of the 20th century. The practice of guising at Hallowe’en in North America is first recorded in 1911, where a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario reported children going guising around the neighborhood. The earliest known use in print of the term trick-or-treat appears in 1927, in the Blackie Herald in Alberta, Canada.

In parts of Britain, these customs came under attack during the Reformation. Protestants did not believe that the returning souls were journeying from Purgatory on their way to Heaven, as Catholics frequently believed. Instead, the Protestants believed that the so-called ghosts were evil spirits to be feared.

The modern imagery of Hallowe’en comes from many sources, including Christian traditions, national customs, works of Gothic and horror literature such as the novels Frankenstein and Dracula, and classic horror films such as Frankenstein and The Mummy. Imagery of the skull, a reference to Golgotha in the Christian tradition, serves as a reminder of death and the transitory quality of human life. Elements of the autumn harvest, such as pumpkins, corn husks and scarecrows, are also prevalent. Homes are often decorated with these types of symbols around Hallowe’en. Black, orange, and sometimes purple are Hallowe’en’s traditional colours.

Happy Hallowe’en! Happy Trick-or-Treating!


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