Halloween: Witches, old rites and modern fun

Two lit Jack O Lanterns in a dark background Pumpkin substituted hollowed out turnips as Halloween's vegetable of choice

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Halloween is widely known as an American holiday. Trick or treating, pumpkins, witches, and Halloween parties are all newcomers to the British calendar and compete for attention with the resolutely British Guy Fawkes Night.

But in actual fact, Halloween originated in Britain. The name Halloween, or All Hallows' Eve, comes from the Old English halga or "holy". Up until 1500 the word "hallow" referred to a holy person and so Halloween was named as the night before All Saints' Day.

The Origins of Halloween

Etymology is one thing, but the origins of modern Halloween are quite another.

Since the 18th Century historians have traced the origins of Halloween in two ancient pagan festivals: the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced "sow-in" and meaning "summer's end") and Pomona, a festival believed to take place in honour of the Roman fruit goddess Pomona.

What is Samhain?

  • Samhain marks the Feast of the Dead in the Pagan calendar
  • In the Pagan Celtic tradition, Samhain was the time of year when the spirits of the dead could most readily mingle with the living
  • To modern Pagans, Samhain is therefore not only a time for reflecting on mortality, but also on the passing of relationships, jobs and other significant changes in life.

Samhain was a three-day Celtic New Year festival that began on 31 October and, according to the some scholars, was a time during which the "Lord of the dead" was honoured. Recent studies have stressed that Samhain was marked by bonfires and celebrated the abundance of food after the Harvest.

The difficulty with this theory is that there is very little evidence, other than the timing of the festivals, to substantiate it. Historian Ronald Hutton has argued that there was no widespread Celtic festival of Samhain in the British Isles.

The celebration, language, and meaning of the October festival changed from place to place. The Welsh, for example, celebrated something called Calan Gaeaf. There was some overlap between Welsh celebrations and the predominantly Irish and Scottish celebration of Samhain, but there were many differences too.


The evidence against Pomona is even stronger. There simply was no Roman festival held in her honour. It never existed at all.

In the mid-8th Century, Pope Gregory III moved the date of All Saints Day from 13 May - the date of the Roman festival of the Dead - to November 1st, the date of Samhain.

It is unclear whether either Gregory III or his successor Gregory IV, who made celebration of All Saints Day mandatory, were trying to "Christianize" Samhain. But whatever their motivations, the new date of All Saints Day meant that Christian celebrations of the holy dead and Samhain were conflated with one another.

Local pagan religious customs in Britain blended into Christian religious holidays, and vice versa.

The Rise of Halloween

It was in the medieval and early modern period (1500-1800) that Halloween began to come into its own. Bonfires became especially popular in this period, although their use varied widely. A common use was simply to burn the Harvest chaff but over time the bonfires were seen as guiding Christian souls in purgatory or a means of warding off witchcraft and the plague.

Close up of church bells Henry VIII and Elizabeth I attempted to ban ringing bells on Halloween as the custom was so disruptive

Even if witches were viewed with fear and suspicion, one of the most popular and prevalent of Halloween rituals was fortune telling. While some rituals were intended to prophesy the date of a person's death, most were about romantic love and discerning the name of one's future spouse.

We can get some sense of what went on during this period from later literature on the subject. In his poem Halloween, Scottish poet Robert Burns described some of the ways that a young person might discover the name of their future beloved.

Kale pulling

Many of them involved agriculture. For example, a person would pull kale or cabbage stalks from fields in the belief that the shape and taste of the stalks provided vital clues about the profession and character of one's beloved.

Scarily good treats

Halloween graveyard cake

Other forms of divination included bobbing for apples engraved with the initials of various candidates and reading walnut shells or looking in the mirror and asking the devil to reveal the face of one's future spouse.

Eating in general was an important component of Halloween as it is with many holidays. The most distinctive was "souling" or "soul-caking", in which children went from house to house singing rhymes and saying prayers for the souls of the dead. The soul cakes they received in return were good luck and represented a soul being freed from purgatory.

Parish churches would sound with the ringing of bells - sometimes all night. The practice was so disruptive that both Henry VIII and Elizabeth attempted to ban it. They had little success; the parishes persisted despite the fact that bell ringers were regularly fined.

Image of toffee apples made for Halloween, cooling on windowsill. Urban myths about apples stuffed with razor blades spread across America in the 1960s

In 1647, after the English Civil War, the newly formed parliamentary government banned all of the "Papist" autumnal festivals except Guy Fawkes. And, in England at least, Halloween lessened in importance.

Passage to America

In 1845 the Great Potato Famine forced approximately one million people to emigrate from Ireland to the United States, taking their history and traditions with them. It is no coincidence that the earliest references to Halloween appeared in America shortly afterwards. In fact, an American ladies magazine printed a story in 1870 that describes it as an "English" holiday.

At first, Halloween traditions in the US blended British agricultural games with local harvest traditions. The apples popular in British fortune telling games were made into cider and served with doughnuts. Corn, a premiere part of the American farming industry, became an important feature of American Halloween so that by the early 20th Century scarecrows were a common part of Halloween decorations.

It was in America the pumpkin emerged as Halloween's vegetable of choice. Halloween revellers had carried hollowed out turnips in the UK, but the pumpkin was an American fruit. A folktale about a blacksmith named Jack who outsmarts the devil and wandered the earth undead gave the Jack-o-lanterns their distinctive name and Halloween its ubiquitous orange and black colour scheme.

Orson Welles

America also gave rise to "trick or treating" in its modern form. We can see hints of it in souling and medieval pranks involving throwing cabbages, but it was in 1920s America that pranking became more popular. Trick or treating could turn violent, as it did during the Great Depression, and grew ubiquitous in the aftermath of World War II when rationing ended and candies were freely available.

Perhaps the greatest Halloween "trick" was not about candy at all. The radio broadcast of H. G. Well's War of the Worlds, which prompted widespread confusion when it debuted, took place on 30 October 1938. At the conclusion of the play Orson Welles broke character to remind listeners that the performance was a Halloween concoction. He likened his own role to dressing up in a sheet and saying "boo!"

Modern Halloween

Today, Halloween is the largest non-Christian holiday in the US. By 2010 it surpassed both Valentine's Day and Easter as the top US holiday for chocolate sales. Simultaneously, the US has exported Halloween to other countries, especially the UK.

For much of the 20th Century Halloween languished in obscurity in Britain. It was outshone and overshadowed by Guy Fawkes Night bonfires and fireworks. In the past two decades, however, Halloween has experienced a renaissance. Between 2001 and 2010 British retailers reported a surge in UK Halloween related spending from £12M to £280M pounds. The costume market alone grew by a factor of 30.

Poisonous treats

Halloween continues to generate its own mythology. In 1964 a disgruntled New York housewife named Helen Pfeil decided to hand out steel wool, dog treats and poisonous ant buttons to children she deemed too old for trick or treating. Within a handful of years urban legends about apples stuffed with razor blades and sweets laced with arsenic and hallucinogenic drugs had spread like wildfire. Despite the negligible risk of harm, hospitals in the US X-ray Halloween spoils for foreign objects.

As a festival Halloween has many faces: it memorializes the lifting of the veil between the living and the dead; it celebrates the harvest season; it marks the end of summer and the beginning of autumn; and, with the changing seasons, it recalls the souls of the dead. Determining where Halloween comes from depends a great deal on which aspect of Halloween we choose to emphasize.

At the same time, Halloween is constantly and enigmatically shifting shape. It gives adults the opportunity to indulge in fears and fantasies in a socially acceptable way. It reverses traditional social rules about avoiding strangers and the dark side of human nature. It incorporates religion, nature, death and romance. And it continues to pull the wool over the eyes of historians, radio listeners and Halloween revellers.

Perhaps this is why it is so popular.

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