The story of Halloween
What do you get when you mix ancient Scottish symbolism with post war American consumerism? A delicious toffee apple! Read on to find out how!
In two weeks it’s Halloween! Our classrooms will be full of children (and adults) learning words and phrases connected to Halloween like trick or treat, haunted house and apple bobbing. Why do we celebrate Halloween though (apart from to learn new words and phrases) and where does this celebration come from?
Halloween is one of the oldest celebrations in our calendar. Its original name was Samhain. Samhain was a very important date for Celtic pagans. Celtic pagans were people from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Celtic pagan culture and the celebration of Samhain can be traced back to the 5th century. The Celts were very preoccupied with death, other worlds, magic and spirits so it is not difficult to see how Halloween has become associated with ghosts, witches and monsters in the modern day. As Samhain is a celebration of winter and it is also easy to see how Halloween became associated with night, darkness and winter vegetables like the pumpkin.
In the 9th century as western Christianity spread around Europe the holiday of Samhain in the UK and Ireland became influenced by the Christian celebrations of all saints day and all souls day. The date of all saints day and all souls day was changed by the church in the 9th century to the same day as the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain, probably in an attempt to eradicate paganism and to promote Christianity. All saints and all souls days are days where Christians remember the dead.
Over a period of many years many people from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and other Northern European countries moved to America, when they did they took their cultures and celebrations with them. One of those celebrations was Samhain/Halloween.
The commercialization of Halloween took place in the USA from around the 1930s when the first Halloween costumes started to appear in shops. Over the next few decades companies found new ways to make money from Halloween by selling decorations and foods connected with the celebration. In the 1950s trick or treating (when children go to different houses in the neighbourhood asking for chocolate and sweets) became popular in the USA and later in the UK. By the 1970s huge parades had started to take place in the USA to celebrate Halloween and the day had become one of the most important celebrations in the modern calendar again.
Not everything about Halloween was changed by big American companies and western Christianity though. The game of apple bobbing for example is still hugely popular in the UK on Halloween. This is a game where people put apples into a big barrel of water, they put their hands behind their backs and try to get the apples out of the barrel using only their teeth! This activity (it was much more serious hundreds of years ago) has its origins in ancient times, and in Celtic pagan culture the apple has a strong connection to the idea of the otherworld. It also makes for a delicious treat if you cover it in chocolate or toffee!
Halloween then is a wonderful mix of an ancient celebration of winter, magic and mystery, western Christian remembrance of the dead and of course American commercialization.