Why do we celebrate Halloween? The history behind the spookiest night of the year

We all know that Halloween means dressing up in scary costumes, trick-or-treating and carving pumpkins. But where do these traditions come from?

Friday, 25th October 2019, 1:12 pm
Updated Friday, 25th October 2019, 2:14 pm

Halloween has evolved into a multi-billion pound industry, but the strange rituals we observe each year are rooted in ancient history.

Here’s why 31 October became the spookiest night of the year.

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When did we start celebrating Halloween?

Halloween originates from Samhain, a Celtic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the darker half of the year.

It’s believed the festival had Celtic pagan origins and there is evidence it has been an important date since ancient times.

As the nights grew longer, people believed the barrier between our world and the spirit realm began to thin, allowing some passage between two.

In the past, people lit bonfires to ward off evil spirits. (Picture: Shutterstock)

Our Celtic ancestors would light great bonfires and pound on drums to guide spooky visitors from the underworld, while wearing costumes to ward off evil spirits during the Samhain celebration.

When the Romans took over, the festival of 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 November 1 to be a day in which all the saints and martyrs would be honoured. This became known as All Saints Day, which made October 31 All Saints Eve. This then evolved into All Hallows Eve, and then Allhalloween or Halloween.

Where did the modern traditions come from?

Much of what we associate with Halloween today is the product of the Americanisation it has gone through over the years. Initially, the different European traditions which met in America mixed, along with some Native American ones, to form a new kind of Halloween.

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Over time, the American Halloween grew into the massive commercial event we see today – an estimated $6 billion is spent on it each year.

However, many modern Halloween activities are still rooted in old traditions.

For example, pumpkin carving began in America but has Celtic roots. During Samhain celebrations, Celtic 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.