Halloween I Oxford Open Learning



    The golden glow of carved pumpkin faces, ghoulish costumes aplenty and trick and treaters knocking at the door. Halloween is almost here again. But where did it originate?

    Halloween is a shortened form of All Hallows’ Eve, an occasion observed on October 31, the evening before All Saints’ (or All Hallows’) Day. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honour all saints. Halloween marks the day before the Western Christian feast of All Saints and initiates the season of Allhallowtide, which lasts three days and concludes with All Souls’ Day.


    The day has its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “SAH-win”). It is believed that the day dates back to around 2,000 years ago, when Celtic people in Europe, mostly in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, participated in a pagan religious celebration to welcome the harvest at the end of summer. They would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. Halloween marked the end of summer and the beginning of winter, or the “darker half” of the year. It also marked the end of the Celtic year and the beginning of the new one, and as such can be seen as their equivalent of New Year’s Eve.

    Celts believed that on the night before their New Year, the veil between the dead and the living became blurred. On October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. They believed that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. To mark the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.

    The Origins Of Trick Or Treat At Halloween

    During the Pagan festival, it’s said that the poor or young would knock on houses, asking for food tributes, called ‘soul cakes’ for All Soul’s Day to celebrate and commemorate the dead. They were used to pay the beggars who came around on All Souls’ Eve and offered to say prayers for the family’s departed, a tradition which has evolved in modern day to ‘trick or treating’.

    Though rooted in distant celebrations of Samhain, the Halloween that we celebrate today really started taking off in the middle of the 19th century, when Irish immigrants departed their country during the potato famine. The newcomers brought with them their own superstitions and customs to their new homes, including carved turnips, potatoes and beets in place of pumpkins.

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