Why do we celebrate Halloween? Traditions and history of the October holiday explained
Some of our favourites spooky traditions date back to ancient times, and Halloween as we know it has been influence by cultures from all over the world
Costumes, monsters, scary movies, toffee apples, witches, pumpkins, tricks, and treats: all will become more common as Halloween approaches in a few day’s time.
But why did we start celebrating it in the first place, and how did it turn into the occasion we know today?
Here is everything you need to know.
Where did Halloween come from?
Halloween is believed to be a descendant of the festival of Samhain, a Gaelic celebration that marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the darker half of the year.
The festival is thought to have Celtic pagan origins and there is evidence it has been an important date since ancient times.
During the Samhain celebration, the Celts would light great bonfires and pound on drums to guide visitors from the underworld, while wearing costumes to ward off malevolent spirits.
As the influence of the Roman empire took over Great Britain and much of Europe, Samhain was gradually combined with the Roman celebrations of Feralia, in which the dead were honoured, and Pomona, which paid tribute to the goddess of fruits and trees.
In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III declared 1 November to be a day on which all the saints and martyrs would be honoured.
This became known as All Saints Day, which made 31 October All Saints Eve, which would then evolve into ‘All Hallows Eve’, and then ‘Allhalloween’, or ‘Halloween’.
When did we start celebrating Halloween?
Much of what we associate with Halloween today is the product of the Americanisation it has gone through over the years.
Initially, as immigrants from Europe met in the new world of America, so too did their Halloween traditions.
These melded with Native American practises to form a new kind of Halloween, one which grew into the massive commercial event we see today – an estimated $6 billion (£4.6 billion) is spent on it each year.
Where did the modern traditions come from?
Many modern Halloween activities are rooted in old traditions. For example, pumpkin carving began in America but has Celtic roots.
During Samhain, children would make lanterns out of turnips. When the Irish arrived in America, there were no turnips to be found, so they made do with pumpkins, and this ritual has since been fed back to the UK.
Similarly, “trick or treating” is an American term with roots in the UK. Dating back to the middle ages, 'Souling' was the British tradition of going door to door and offering prayers for the dead in return for food.
Since the 19th century, children in Scotland have gone “guising” - disguising themselves as evil spirits in order to ward them off.
It is also thought that the practice of bobbing for apples is drawn from the Roman holiday Pomona, which took the apple as its symbol.
Drawing from different traditions from various countries across hundreds of years, Halloween really is a night in which things rise up from the past to mingle with the present.
What new traditions has Covid-19 ushered in?
So how can children and families still get a kick out of Halloween?
One idea is a lockdown pumpkin trail, which involves children drawing pictures of pumpkins and sticking them in their windows for other children to see.
Families can then see how many they can spot throughout October as an alternative to trick or treating.
You can download a pumpkin template from the internet, or design your own from scratch.
You could even paint a funny face onto a real pumpkin and put it in your garden; another popular alternative activity this year is picking your own pumpkins at a local pumpkin patch.
Being an outside activity, it negates much of the risk of being indoors in public spaces during a pandemic, and given properly implemented social distancing measures, can be a fun day out for the whole family.