Supermarket shelves will soon bend under the weight of pumpkins with cupboards clogged with fancy dress, and there can only be one reason: Halloween, the spooky holiday observed each year on October 31, is almost here.
More commonly known as Halloween or Hallowe’en (a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening), the spooky festival is also referred to as Allhalloween, All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve. It is the eve of the Western Christian holiday of All Saints Day, also known as All Saints Day.
In recent years there have been complaints about the ‘Americanised’ event dominating UK streets at the end of October, with some wondering why we even celebrate Halloween in the UK – but the tradition originally started on this side of the pond. But how did it evolve into the costume contest it is today?
Why do we celebrate Halloween and when did it start in the UK?
The Americanized Halloween we experience today actually originated on the Celtic fringes of Britain and has been adapted over the decades by Christian traditions, immigrant conventions and an insatiable desire for sweets.
The origin of the festival is disputed and there are pagan and Christian practices that evolved into what Halloween is today.
Some believe it originates from the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain, meaning ‘Summer’s End’ which celebrated the end of the harvest season.
The Gaels believed this was a time when the walls between our world and the next were becoming thin and porous, allowing spirits to pass through, resurrect the same day and damage their crops. Cutlery was set at the table to appease and welcome the spirits. The Gaels also offered food and drink and lit bonfires to ward off evil spirits.
The origins of trick or treating and dressing date back to the 16th century in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where people went door to door in costume asking for food in exchange for a poem or a song.
Many disguised themselves as the souls of the dead and were believed to protect themselves from spirits by impersonating them. More on this below.
The Christian origin of the holiday is that it falls on the days before All Saints Day, which was fixed in the 8th century in an attempt to eradicate pagan celebrations. Christians would honor saints and pray for souls who have not yet reached heaven.
What’s Halloween got to do with dressing up?
The Celts dressed in white with blackened faces during the Samhain festival to deceive the evil spirits they believed would roam the land before All Saints Day on November 1.
By the 11th century, this had been adapted by the Church into a tradition called “souling”, which is believed to be the origin of trick-or-treating. Children go door to door, asking for soul cakes in exchange for prayers for the souls of friends and relatives.
They went disguised as angels, demons or saints. Soul cakes were sweet, with a cross marked on top and when eaten they represented a soul freed from purgatory.
Nicholas Rogers, a historian at York University, says that when people prayed for the dead at Holy Mass, they dressed. When praying for fertile marriages, “chorister boys in churches dressed up as virgins. So there was a degree of cross-dressing in the actual All Hallow’s Eve ceremony.”
In the 19th century, souling gave way to guising or mumming, when children offered songs, poetry, and jokes—instead of prayer—in exchange for fruit or money.
The phrase trick-or-treating was first used in America in 1927, with traditions brought to America by immigrants. Guising gave way to threatening pranks in exchange for candy.
After a brief lull during sugar rations during World War II, Halloween became a widespread holiday that revolved around children, with newly built suburbs providing a safe place for children to roam free.
Costumes became more adventurous – in the Victorian era they were influenced by gothic themes in literature and dressed as bats and ghosts or what seemed exotic, like an Egyptian pharaoh. Later costumes were influenced by pop culture and became more sexualized in the 1970s.
Many of us have been the victims of a spooky Halloween prank, or even played the mean trickster ourselves. From jumping bushes dressed as zombies to scaring people in their sleep as ghosts, the terrifying list of possibilities is endless.
From turnip to pumpkin carving
Pumpkin carving has its origins in the feast of Samhain, when the Gaels carved turnips to ward off spirits and prevent fairies from settling in homes.
One theory that explains the Americanized name Jack O’Lantern comes from the folk story of Stingy Jack, who tricked the devil into offering him a drink. He wasn’t let into heaven or hell – and when he died the devil threw a hot ember at him which he kept in a turnip.
The influx of Irish immigrants in the 1840s to North America could not find turnips to carve, as was the tradition, so they used the more readily available pumpkin in which they carved spooky faces.
By the 1920s, pumpkin carving was prevalent across America, and Halloween was a big holiday with fancy dress and trick or treats.
Halloween traditions around the world
In Czech culture, chairs for deceased family members are placed by the fire on Halloween night alongside chairs for each of the living.
In Austria, some people leave bread, water and a lighted lamp on the table before going to bed. It is believed that this will welcome dead souls to Earth.
Meanwhile, in Germany, people hide their knives to ensure that none of the returning spirits are harmed – or seek to harm them!
Barmbrack, a fruitcake, is used as part of a divination game in Ireland. Muslin-wrapped treats are baked inside. If a ring is found, it means that the person will soon get married; a piece of straw means a prosperous year is on the way; a pea means the person will not marry that year; a stick means an unhappy marriage or a quarrel; a coin represents good fortune.
The city of Kawasaki in Japan holds an annual Halloween costume parade. More than 100,000 watch it and traditionally 2,500 people attend.
In Manila, capital of the Philippines, pets are also in the game. An annual costume contest aims to raise funds for animal welfare groups.
This article is updated with the latest information.