The history of Halloween dates back to the early Celtic pagan festival Samhain, celebrated in Ireland and Scotland, and the Welsh equivalent – Calan Gaeaf.
The festival marked the end of the harvest season, where the locals honoured the pagan gods and gave thanks for all they had received. They believed that the night before the festival (31st October) was a ‘spirit night’ where the boundary between the spirit world and ours grew thin and Gods walked among us.
As Christianity rose throughout Europe, pagan festivals became outlawed or assimilated into Christian traditions. By merging the old and the new, Halloween was born.
Although not all Halloween traditions date back to that original festival, it’s surprising how many did, and the origins of those that have appeared since.
Here are 7 Halloween traditions and where they came from.
7. The History of Bobbing for Apples
Who doesn’t love dunking their head in a cold barrel of water on a chilly Autumn night, trying futilely to bite an object bigger than your mouth?
The history of bobbing for apples dates back to the Roman occupation of Britain. In an attempt to seem like benevolent invaders, they allowed the native Celts to keep some of their own traditional festivals – including Samhain, the OG Halloween.
Like all good invaders, they assimilated themselves into the culture, introducing apples to the Brits for the first time in 43 AD.
To the Romans, apple trees represented the Goddess of fruit and plenty, Pomona. And to the Celts, when cut open, apple seeds form a pentagram – a Celtic symbol of fertility. With this link, the Romans saw a way to integrate into the festival.
And so, bobbing for apples was born.
During Samhain, young unmarried people (usually female) would ‘bob’, and the first person to chomp down was favoured by fate and would be the next person permitted to marry.
6. The History of Carving Pumpkins… or Turnips
Pumpkins are native to US and Mexico, but carving has been part of the history of halloween for at least a few centuries. So, for hundreds of years, the rest of the world celebrated using other root vegetables for jack-o’-lanterns, most prominently and unsettlingly… turnips.
But where did the idea of carving faces into veg come from?
Well, most believe that the custom began in Ireland, although the Welsh also used lights in hollowed out vegetables as part of their version of Samhain – Nos Calan Gaeaf.
The Welsh Belief – Guiding Lights
The Celtic Welsh celebrated Nos Calan Gaeaf as the time where the line between the spirit world and ours was the thinnest, allowing spirits to pass over for one day and walk among us.
The pagan festival honoured this union of the living and dead, welcoming home benevolent spirits and banishing evil ones.
They believed by placing lights in turnips, they could simultaneously guide home the good spirits, whilst keeping out the evil.
The Irish Belief – Stingy Jack
The Irish belief is the more popularly known and held version of the story. It comes from a myth about Stingy Jack, an alcoholic con man who tricked the devil.
The story goes that after hearing of Stingy Jack, Satan decided to see the man for himself.
They had two ill-fated meetings during which Stingy Jack twice tricked Satan and trapped him. The first time he bargained for extra years of his life in exchange for the devil’s freedom, the second that his soul would never be taken to Hell.
When Stingy Jack’s time came, he was judged by St Peter, who refused to allow him to enter through the Pearly Gates. When he went down to Hell, the devil also refused him entry based on their deal.
With no entry to heaven and no entry to hell, Stingy Jack was forced to wander in limbo forever… with only a small light inside a turnip to light his way.
5. Wearing Costumes
Wearing costumes on Halloween goes all the way back to those Celtic festivals – Samhain and Nos Calan Gaeaf.
The Celts believed that on Halloween or Samhain, the dead could walk among you. Costumes meant they wouldn’t fear discovery by evil spirits, and you could, for a single night, be reunited with the souls of your loved ones.
As the tradition of trick or treating developed, the notion of wearing costumes on Halloween evolved. Dressing up and wearing a mask, known as ‘mumming and guising’, was part of the elaborate tradition where children and the poor would knock on doors, offering snatches of song or verse and receiving food in return. It was believed that by dressing up as departed souls, you could protect themselves from your spirit as they wandered the night of Halloween.
Which leads us to…
4. The Origins of Trick-or-Treating
No one has embraced the culture of trick-or-treating quite like the Americans. Despite it originating in Europe, the states have dressed up and trick-or-treated with gusto since the 1950s.
Variations of trick-or-treating have been around since antiquity, although they weren’t quite like the version we know today. For example, during Samhain, food was left out as offerings for the spirits who roamed during the festival.
Modern day trick-or-treating seems to have evolved from mumming and guising, a ritual that has been a part of Halloween since at least the early modern European period.
What is Mumming and Guising?
Mumming refers to a reciting a verse or part of a play in exchange for food. Guising is to do it all in costume. Since the Middle Ages in Britain and Ireland, people would go door-to-door in costume, mumming and guising to receive food for a snippet of entertainment. Before this became a family tradition, it was usually relegated to children and the poor, on a night where people were more inclined to be generous – lest they upset the spirits.
This eventually evolved into the modern-day trick-or-treating.
3. Black Cats on Halloween
Across the world, black cats have historically been an omen – sometimes good, but more often bad. Although these superstitions have been around since the ancient Celts and early medieval period, it seems to be later medieval, where they began to be more strongly associated specifically with Halloween.
Black Cats in Britain
The Scottish believed a black cat arriving at your home signified prosperity, and the Welsh believed it meant good health, as evidenced by this Welsh folklore poem from 1896:
Cath ddu, mi glywais dd’wedyd,
A fedr swyno hefyd,
A chadw’r teulu lle mae’n byw
O afael pob rhyw glefyd.
A black cat, I’ve heard it said,
Can charm all ill away,
And keep the house wherein she dwells
From fever’s deadly sway.
But similarly, both nations had legends of evil black cats too. The Welsh had a monstrous mythological black cat called Cath Palug who killed 180 warriors on Anglesey, and the Scots had the Cat sith who could steal a person’s soul.
When did Black Cats become associated with Witchcraft/Halloween?
During the European and Salem Witch Trials, black cats became fast associated with witches, as the most likely animal to be a witch’s familiar.
This is most likely because many beliefs and stories already centered around the idea that black cats were a bad omen – and what worse omen than a witch?
2. Toffee Apples or, as the Americans say, Candy Apples!
The origins of this one are fairly easy to guess, assuming you read the apple bobbing portion of this article.
As we’ve already discussed, apples were a big part of celebrating the end of harvest season. As time went on, people began to come up with new and creative ways to eat the fruit on Halloween.
Who Invented Toffee Apples?
Toffee apples were invented in 1908 by American candymaker William Kolb. Kolb intended to use the brightly coloured apples as a window display to draw in customers at Christmastime. But quickly, more and more people came asking for the apples themselves and they slowly evolved into a favourite; not just at Christmas, but Halloween too.
The superstition of witches and witchcraft as evil came about in the medieval period, leading to 300 years of witch trials and executions.
There is no definitive answer on where the idea of witches first came from, but in Western Europe at least, it appears to have stemmed from divination and fortune-telling – both of which were a huge part of the Celtic pagan festival Samhain.
Samhain was believed to be the best day for divination, due to the thin barrier between the spirit world and ours. Young women would traditionally seek out the names of their future husbands through a variety of fortune-telling means.
As time passed, this desire to learn of the future and its close links with ‘magic’, led to its association with witches, particularly during the medieval period when the church moved from believing witches were pagan superstitious nonsense to the result of deals with the devil.