Halloween, or Hallowe’en ( a contraction of “All Hallows’ Evening“), also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve, is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers.
According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain. Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.
In many parts of the world, the Christian religious observances of All Hallows’ Eve, including attending church service and lighting candles on the graves of the dead, remain popular in some parts of the world. Western Christians denominations encourage, abstinence from meat on All Hallows’ Eve, the tradition of eating certain vegetarian foods for this vigil day developed, including the consumption of apples, colcannon cider, potato pancakes, and soul cakes.
The word Halloween or Hallowe’en dates to about 1745 and is of Christian origin. The word “Halloween” means “hallow evening” or “holy evening”. It comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows’ Eve (the evening before All Hallows’ Day). In Scot, the word “eve” is even, and this is contracted to e’en or een. Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Halloween. Although the phrase “All Hallows'” is found in Old English (ealra hālgena mæssedæg, all saints mass-day), “All Hallows’ Eve” is itself not seen until 1556.
Jack Santino, a folklorist, writes that “there was throughout Ireland an uneasy truce existing between customs and beliefs associated with Christianity and those associated with religions that were Irish before Christianity arrived”.
Nicholas Rogers, exploring the origins of Halloween, notes that while “some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia, it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain”, which comes from the Old Irish for “summer’s end”.
Today’s Halloween customs are also thought to have been influenced by Christian dogma and practices derived from it. Halloween is the evening before the Christian holy days of All Hallows’ Day (also known as All Saints’ or Hallowmas) on 1 November and All Souls day on 2 November, thus giving the holiday on 31 October the full name of All Hallows’ Eve (meaning the evening before All Hallows’ Day).Since the time of the primitive Church, major feasts in the Christian Church (such as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost) had vigils which began the night before, as did the feast of All Hallows’. These three days are collectively referred to as Allhallowtide and are a time for honoring the saints and praying for the recently departed souls who have yet to reach Heaven. All Saints was introduced in the year 609, but was originally celebrated on 13 May, the same date as Lemuria, an Ancient Roman festival of the dead. In 835, it was officially switched to 1 November, the same date as Samhain, at the behest of Pope Gregory IV. Some suggest this was due to Celtic influence, while others suggest it was a Germanic idea, although it is claimed that both Germanic and Celtic-speaking peoples commemorated the dead at the beginning of winter. It may have been seen as the most fitting time to do so, as it was when the plants themselves were ‘dying’. It is also suggested that the change was made on the “practical grounds that Rome in summer could not accommodate the great number of pilgrims who flocked to it”, and perhaps because of public health considerations regarding Roman Fever– a disease that claimed a number of lives during the sultry summers of the region.
By the end of the 12th century they had become holy days of obligations across Europe and involved such traditions as ringing church bells for the souls in purgatory . In addition, “it was customary for criers dressed in black to parade the streets, ringing a bell of mournful sound and calling on all good Christians to remember the poor souls.” “Souling”, the custom of baking and sharing soul cakes for all christened souls, has been suggested as the origin of trick-or-treating. The custom dates back at least as far as the 15th century and was found in parts of England, Flanders, Germany and Austria. Groups of poor people, often children, would go door-to-door during Allhallowtide, collecting soul cakes, in exchange for praying for the dead, especially the souls of the givers’ friends and relatives. Soul cakes would also be offered for the souls themselves to eat, or the ‘soulers’ would act as their representatives. Shakespeare mentions souling in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593). On the custom of wearing costumes, Christian minister Prince Sorie Conteh wrote: “It was traditionally believed that the souls of the departed wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day, and All Hallows’ Eve provided one last chance for the dead to gain vengeance on their enemies before moving to the next world. In order to avoid being recognized by any soul that might be seeking such vengeance, people would don masks or costumes to disguise their identities”. In the Middle Ages, churches displayed the relics of martyred saints and those parishes that were too poor to have relics let parishioners dress up as the saints instead, a practice that some Christians continue at Halloween today. Lesley Bannatyne, an American author, believes that this was a Christianization of a previous pagan custom. It has been suggested that the carved jack-o’-lantern, a popular symbol of Halloween, originally represented the souls of the dead. On Halloween, in medieval Europe, “fires [were] lit to guide these souls on their way and deflect them from haunting honest Christian folk. “Households in Austria, England and Ireland often had “candles burning in every room to guide the souls back to visit their earthly homes”. These were known as “soul lights”. Many Christians in mainland Europe, especially in France, believed “that once a year, on Hallowe’en, the dead of the churchyards rose for one wild, hideous carnival” known as the danse macabre, which has often been depicted in church decoration. Christopher Allmand and Rosamond McKitterick write in The New Cambridge Medieval History that “Christians were moved by the sight of the Infant Jesus playing on his mother’s knee; their hearts were touched by the Pieta; and patron saints reassured them by their presence. But, all the while, the danse macabre urged them not to forget the end of all earthly things.” An article published by Christianity Today claimed that the danse macabre was enacted at village pageants and at court masques, with people “dressing up as corpses from various strata of society”, and suggested this was the origin of modern-day Halloween costume parties held today on All Hollows’ Eve.
Protestants maintained belief in an intermediated state, known as Hades (Bosom of Abraham), and continued to observe the original customs, especially souling, candlelit processions and the ringing of church bells in memory of the dead. With regard to the evil spirits, on Halloween, “barns and homes were blessed to protect people and livestock from the effect of witches, who were believed to accompany the malignant spirits as they traveled the earth.” In the 19th century, in some rural parts of England, families gathered on hills on the night of All Hallows’ Eve. One held a bunch of burning straw on a pitchfork while the rest knelt around him in a circle, praying for the souls of relatives and friends until the flames went out. This was known as teen’lay, derived either from the Old English tendan (to kindle) or a word related to Old Irish tenlach (hearth). The rising popularity of Guy Fawkes Night (5 November) from 1605 onward, saw many Halloween traditions appropriated by that holiday instead, and Halloween’s popularity waned in Britain, with the noteworthy exception of Scotland. There and in Ireland, they had been celebrating Samhain and Halloween since at least the early Middle Ages, and the Scottish kirk took a more pragmatic approach to Halloween, seeing it as important to the life cycle and rites of passage of communities and thus ensuring its survival in the country.
In France, some Christian families, on the night of All Hallows’ Eve, prayed beside the graves of their loved ones, setting down dishes full of milk for them. On Halloween, in Italy, some families left a large meal out for ghost of their passed relatives, before they departed for church service In Spain, on this night, special pastries are baked, known as “bones of the holy” (Spanish: Huesos de Santo) and put them on the graves of the churchyard, a practice that continues to this day.
Development of artifacts and symbols associated with Halloween formed over time. Jack-o-lanterns are traditionally carried by guiser on All Hallows’ Eve in order to frighten evil spirits. There is a popular Irish Christian folktale associated with the jack-o-lantern, which in folklore, is said to represent a “soul who has been denied entry into both heaven and hell”.
On route home after a night’s drinking, Jack encounters the Devil and tricks him into climbing a tree. A quick-thinking Jack etches the sign of the cross into the bark, thus trapping the Devil. Jack strikes a bargain that Satan can never claim his soul. After a life of sin, drinking, and mendacity, Jack is refused entry to heaven when he dies. Keeping his promise, the Devil refuses to let Jack into hell and throws a live coal straight from the fires of hell at him. It was a cold night, so Jack places the coal in a hollowed out turnip to stop it from going out, since which time Jack and his lantern have been roaming looking for a place to rest.