Dr Louise Fenton, Senior Lecturer Visual Communication
The 31st October is a date that today tends to be associated with ‘Trick or Treat’, carved pumpkins and a night that ghosts roam the earth, but rarely is there a consideration of where it started and how it evolved. The origins of All Hallows Eve, or Halloween as we know it today, began with the Celtic festival of Samhain celebrated on the date we now give to Halloween. This was a festival to mark the end of the summer and was one of the most important in the Pagan year. It was a time of year that people would have been well fed and the harvests stored, the animals brought in and the travellers home, however, there was also the negative side to this time. The end of October marked the change of seasons, winter would be approaching bringing with it cold and hunger and the dark nights would be drawing in. It was this aspect of Samhain that led to fear and the belief that spirits would be roaming the earth. It was usual for songs to be sung or people to dress up as the seasonal evil.
From the ninth century the date remained with the Catholic Church and their designation of All Hallows Eve on 1st November and All Souls on 2nd November. Following the reformation these days diminished but did survive in Ireland and both the Catholic dates and Samhain evolved. The Irish immigrants took these festivals with them to America in the 1800s where it developed into the Halloween of today. It was in the 1980s that these traditions made their way back to the UK bringing dressing up, trick or treat and the lit pumpkins, but this raises the question as to where these traditions came from.
First of all the carved pumpkin; there are some who suggest that witchcraft had something to do with this. Many witches were believed to have human skulls with a candle on them in their covens and it was this that was believed to have then evolved into the candlelit pumpkins or that they were placed to ward off evil. The more likely development was from an Irish folktale as it was the Irish who popularised the Halloween tradition in America. The story of Irish Jack was that a drunkard named Jack tricked the devil by getting him to climb a tree to get an apple and then carving a cross on the trunk so the devil couldn’t come down. In return to set the devil free Jack asked for him to never come after his soul. When Jack died he was not allowed to enter heaven and was set to roam the earth as a spirit, the devil stuck to his word and did not take his soul. Feeling sorry for Jack, who happened to be carrying a turnip, the devil threw him a hot, glowing coal which he put inside his carved out turnip to light his way. This was known as a Jack-o-lantern and with more pumpkins in America than turnips, and pumpkins being easier to carve, the Halloween pumpkin evolved.
Another tradition is trick or treating. More known in America it is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. The purpose of dressing up on Halloween had its origins in the Pagan tradition of dressing up as spirits and malevolent forces to allow people to walk among them and not be recognised. Some people gave sweets and food to the spirits to appease them and there was a tradition of knocking doors to ask for food. It is a combination of these that is believed to be the influence on the development of children being involved in trick or treating.
Although Halloween is very different to the Pagan Samhain, it is a festival of celebration at the end of summer and awareness of the impending darkness of winter, and of the spirits of the dead that are able to roam amongst the living…