Between the joy of receiving candy to the fear of scary teenagers roaming the streets, Halloween combines many traditions, ideas, and feelings. It may be hard to believe that Halloween is a Christian holiday despite the zombies, witches, demons, and inevitable Squid Game costumes. And yet! Halloween stems from religious beliefs, as it was called All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints Day Eve, an expression coined by the Church. However, it would be unfair to give them full credit for the holiday: similarly to a favourite of the season, Halloween is a true Frankenstein of different cultures and rituals.
Most of the Halloween traditions we know and love originated from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. This festival celebrated the end of the harvest in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the other British Isles. The Celts celebrated their new year or the end of summer on November 1. The Celts believed that the veil between the living and the dead was particularly thin at this time of year and that the doors for the world of the dead were open that night, and the ghosts would haunt them. So, to imitate spirits and protect themselves, they wore scary costumes.
Both the fear of death and the respect for the deceased are important during Samhain. People used torches and bonfires to protect their homes from evil spirits and souls trying to return to the earth, and it was believed that the living could wander into the land of the dead if they were not careful. However, tables were also laid out to welcome back deceased loved ones and appease them on their visit.
Many other Halloween rituals take their roots in Samhain. Mumming was the practice of visiting houses in costumes and reciting verses in exchange for food, treats and other goods. The costumes were meant to imitate and protect people from evil spirits, and giving away food brought good fortune to households. Eventually, the idea of imitating evil spirits started going off the rails. Some people played pranks and threatened their neighbours. One of the common tricks is familiar to us: radishes and other root vegetables were hollowed out and carved into scary faces before being used as lanterns.
Eventually, in an effort to convert pagans, the Roman Catholic Church mixed the traditions involving Celtic spirits and Catholic saints. November 1 became All Hallows’ or All Saints’ Day, a holiday for dead saints and martyrs. All Hallows’ Eve replaced the rest of the Celtic holiday, but they continued to influence each other until becoming modern-day Halloween.
Coming to America
While Halloween is now widespread in North America, it took a while for it to take root. The Puritans, original colonizers of our Southern neighbour, disliked many of the official Christian holidays, including All Hallows’ Eve. It took the 1840s potato famine and the resulting wave of Irish immigrants for the celebration to start spreading in Northern America. They brought Samhain and Christian customs with them, and the holiday continued to morph on this side of the Atlantic.
Other than dressing up, candy is probably the thing most children look forward to when they think of Halloween. As mentioned previously, mumming was the first version of this practice; however, in their desire to convert Europe, Christians refused to be left in the dust and adapted this ritual to become souling. When souling, the poor would go house to house to ask for food in exchange for prayers for the dead.
These two customs started to morph into trick-or-treating after Halloween emigrated to North America. The Irish had brought with them the practice of playing pranks and causing mischief on Hallows’ Eve, and, by the 1930s, the pranks had spiralled out of control. Children vandalized their neighbours’ property, wearing masks to protect their identity. Halloween became dangerous, and people started using treats as bribes to defend themselves from tricks. Parents encouraged their children to go door to door and keep out of trouble, and “trick-or-treat” eventually went from a scary threat to a harmless and familiar phrase.
Día de Los Muertos
Mexico and other Latin American countries celebrate Día de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Their celebration lasts three days, from October 31 to November 2, and is also designed to honour the dead.
Halloween, riddled with death, monsters, and evil spirits, has grown and evolved since its beginnings as a harvest festival. Who knows how the Celts would feel seeing us eat cheap candy surrounded by decorations meant to ward off evil spirits? Every tradition, every image associated with this holiday has travelled through time and lands to get to us. So open your third eye, grab your black cat and broom, and enjoy the night!
By Marieke Glorieux-Stryckman and Ihsane Fakhir