Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain.
The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.
During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.
The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.
By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints’ Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints’, All Saints’, and All Souls’, were called Hallowmas.
The tradition of face-carved pumpkin lanterns is thought to be derived from the Celts’ placing of ancestors’ skulls outside their doors at this time. Others see it as originating from using lanterns to ward off any evil spirits, which may be wandering through the thin veil into the living world on this All Hallows Eve.
The lit pumpkins also symbolise that in the darkness of winter the light continues within the seeds, tubers and bulbs dormant under the earth – they are still full of life and glowing like the candles within the pumpkins.
The name Jack O’Lantern derives from an old Irish tale of a villain who after he died could not enter heaven or hell – a damned soul. So he was condemned to wander the land with only a candle to see his way (some say it was a hot ember from the devil), which he placed inside a gouged out vegetable to act as a lantern. Others believe Jack-O-Lantern was a mischievous spirit who carried a light at night and lures night travellers into bogs or marshes, which were the dwelling places of fairies.
The Jack O’ Lantern used to be made from a turnip, but Irish emigrants to America adopted the plentiful pumpkin since it is much easier to carve. In the Isle of Man they still carve turnips to make lanterns and call the night ‘Hop To Naa’, not Hallowe’en, or Trick or Treating.