Is there more to Halloween than parties and pumpkins?

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1. Trick or treat

Halloween: pumpkins, candy and ridiculous costumes take over the streets. A predicted $6.9 billion will be spent in the US this year. And it’s becoming a bigger deal on this side of the Atlantic too – over £300 million was spent last year on celebrating Halloween.

But there’s more to the 31st of October than pumpkins and party gear. Its origins lie not in the US, but back here in Britain. And instead of carving pumpkins, we should probably be trimming turnips.

2. Ancient origins

Long before pumpkins and trick or treating, Britons were celebrating on 31 October. Some historians have traced Halloween's origins to an ancient pagan festival celebrated by the Celts in the Iron Age – although others dispute this.


Samhain was a three-day Celtic New Year festival that began on 31 October and, according to some scholars, was a time when the "Lord of the dead" was honoured. The Celts, who lived in Britain about two thousand years ago, believed that during Samhain the veils between this world and the spirit world were at their thinnest and spirits of the dead could mingle with the living. Marked by bonfires, it also celebrated the abundance of food after the Harvest.

Other historians question this version of events. 'Celts' is a broad term encompassing many different tribes in ancient Britain and the festival was celebrated very differently from place to place. Some historians argue that Samhain wasn't a widespread Celtic festival in the British Isles at all. As the Celts did not leave written records, it is difficult to know for sure.

All Hallows' Eve

In the middle of the 8th century, Pope Gregory III moved the date of a Christian feast – All Hallows' Day, or All Saints Day – to 1 November, and his successor, Gregory IV, made its celebration mandatory. It's not clear if it was a deliberate attempt to 'Christianise' Samhain but whatever the reason, the new date of All Saints Day meant that Christian celebrations of the holy dead and Samhain were conflated together. Local pagan customs in Britain blended into Christian religious holidays and vice versa.

3. CLICKABLE: Party like it's 1599

Select the labels to discover how Halloween would have been celebrated in Elizabethan times

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4. Unholy Halloween

For most of us, Halloween now holds little or no spiritual significance. But some religious groups are concerned that Halloween is a negative influence.

Some Christians believe the pagan origins of Halloween – and its association with witchcraft and the occult – distract from the message of their faith. Members of the Church of England have objected to some of the more fearsome aspects of the holiday. In 2007, the Rt Rev David Gillett, then Bishop of Bolton, wrote to Britain's biggest retailers, asking them to stock 'brighter' alternatives to the ghoulish costumes which normally line the shelves.

"I am worried that Halloween has the potential to trivialise the realities of evil in the world," he wrote. "Occult practices should not be condoned, even if they are only being presented in a caricatured, light-hearted form."

"It's high time we reclaimed the Christian aspects of Halloween."

In other parts of the world there has also been some opposition. In October 2014, Malaysia's National Fatwa Council declared Halloween "against Islamic teachings". In 2013, some Russian school students were banned from celebrating Halloween because it "breeds extremism".