We know Halloween is almost upon us as the shops are full of witches’ hats, pumpkins and plastic skeletons! But years ago, Halloween had a much greater significance. Rather than leaving the dressing up to the kids, you would probably have taken care to disguise yourself before stepping outside. Read on to find out what else I discovered…
Halloween originated from the ancient Celtic harvest festival known as Samhain, marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the ‘darker half’ of the year. Looking out the window today how apt that description is!
People believed that, at Samhain, the spirits of the dead would come alive and walk among the living. It was believed that the spirits could more easily enter our world as the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was the thinnest on this night.
Feasts were held and the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend with a place set at the table for them. However, the spirits could be malevolent, so people would disguise themselves to protect their own identity from the spirits – which is one of the reasons given for why we dress up in costumes today.
The word Halloween, or Hallowe’en, dates to about the mid 1700s and is of Christian origin. It means ‘hallowed evening’ or ‘holy evening’ and comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows’ Eve (the evening before All Hallows’ Day). Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Halloween.
Halloween is also known as ‘Nut-crack Night’, ‘Thump-the-door Night’ or ‘Apple and Candle Night’. Some people call Halloween ‘Bob Apple Night’ or ‘Duck Apple Night’. This comes from the traditional game played at this time of year and known as ‘apple bobbing’ or ‘apple ducking’, which some of us probably did (reluctantly in my case!) as children. A bucket is filled with water and apples floated in it. The contestants take turns trying to catch an apple with their teeth but must keep their hands behind their backs.
Some believe that apple bobbing is a reminder of the way women accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages were tried. They were tied to a chair and repeatedly ducked into a river or pond –if she drowned, she was innocent. If she survived, she was declared a witch and burnt at the stake. It’s hard to believe that such a barbaric form of ‘justice’ should be remembered through an innocent-seeming game…
The origin of the carved pumpkin light, or Jack o’ Lantern, is unclear, but the idea of carving a Jack-O-Lantern specifically to celebrate Halloween was first recorded in the USA… but it’s believed that the idea arrived in America from Ireland where turnips, mangelwurzel or beets were also used. They were often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins, while others believe they represented Christian souls in purgatory. They were then were placed on windowsills to keep the harmful spirits out of your home.
Of course, many of today’s ‘customs’ originated in America quite recently and have travelled back to the United Kingdom including the controversial trick of treat! When I was a child it was unheard of and, when it started to appear, people of my parents’ generation took a pretty dim view of it and it has to be said I really, really dislike it, but maybe I am just an old misery!
So what are your thoughts? Is it innocent fun, or a Pagan tradition that should be stamped out? Do you answer the door to trick or treaters… or turn the lights out and pretend you aren’t at home?!