What is Halloween?
It would be easy to think that Halloween is a creation of the United States of America, and spread through popular mediums like television and movies to other parts of the English speaking world. But you would be wrong - it goes back much, much further than that, to the Celtic peoples of Western France, Scotland and Ireland, pre-dating the Roman empire.
Halloween is an annual holiday observed on October 31. It has roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain, that was taken over by the later creation of the Christian holiday All Saints Day, but is today largely a non-religious celebration.
Common Halloween activities include trick or treating, wearing costumes, and attending costume parties, carving jack-o-lanterns, ghost tours, bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, committing pranks, telling ghost stories or other frightening tales, and watching horror films.
History of Halloween
According to Wikipedia, historian Nicholas Rogers, exploring the origins of Halloween, notes that while "some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia, it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, whose original spelling was Samuin (pronounced sow-an or sow-in)".
The name is derived from Old Irish, and means roughly "summer's end". A similar festival was held by the ancient Britons and is known as Calan Gaeaf ( pronounced Kálan Gái av).
The festival of Samhain celebrates the end of the "lighter half" of the year and beginning of the "darker half", and is sometimes regarded as the "Celtic New Year".
The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the OtherWorld / spirit realm, became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. The family's ancestors were honoured and invited home, while harmful spirits were warded off. It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks. Their purpose was to disguise yourself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid being harmed. Evil spirits were stated to go looking for bodies to possess – and dressing up as a ghoul was a way of discouraging them, by effectively hanging a “no vacancy” sign over your head. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces. Samhain was also a time to take stock of food supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. All other fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the bonfire. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames. Sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual.
Another common practice was fortune telling, which often involved the use of food and drink.
The name 'Halloween' and many of its present-day traditions derive from the Old English era.
Origin of the name Halloween
The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Eve, that is, the night before All Hallows Day. Although the phrase All Hallows is found in Old English (ealra hálȝena mæssedæȝ, the feast of all saints), All-Hallows-Even is itself not attested until 1556.