Every 31st October we celebrate the night of Halloween. Pumpkins are carved into jack-o-lanterns, white sheets are ripped in half and turned into ghost costumes, and children go trick-or-treating. These activities are a very modern take on a festival steeped in history.
Halloween has its earliest originals in Celtic times, and began life as a ceremony known as Samhain (pronounced sah-win). A pagan festival, it was both a celebration and a thank you to mark the end of the harvest.
A tradition of the Gaelic culture, Samhain was a time when records were made of the harvest stocks, and the local population prepared their land and homes for the trials of the winter to come.
The pagan Gaels believed that during Samhain, on 31st October, the boundaries between our world and the world of the dead thinned and then overlapped. They thought that the dead would return, bringing sickness to infect the living, and disease to damage the crops.
In order to keep these evils at bay, the Gaels dressed up in costumes with masks, mimicking the evil spirits. It was this tradition that is reflected in the dressing up outfits worn during Halloween in the modern century.
Whilst wearing their evil spirits outfits, the pagans would light bonfires to keep the bad forces at bay. It has also been speculated that the fires attracted insects, and therefore bats who would come to feast upon them- giving us another symbol of Halloween today. Historians believe that the pagans prayed into the bonfires for the souls of the dead stuck in purgatory.
Another name for Halloween is All Hallows Eve. This dates from 835AD, when the Roman Catholic Church made 1st November All Souls Day; a happy celebration to honour all their saints. The word for saint in old English is ‘hallow’, and so, the night before All Souls Day, became All Hallows Eve- and then, in time, Halloween.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.