Halloween has its background within a couple of very different traditions – Christian and Pagan.
The name itself, and some of the meaning, comes from its links with the Christian tradition. Christianity has two important linked festivals in coming days:
- The 2nd November is All Souls’ Day – the commemoration of the faithful departed, when people especially remember their loved ones who have died.
- The 1st November is All Saints’ Day – when all the saints, known and unknown are remembered and celebrated.
Hallowed is another name for remembering and celebrating saints, and so another name for All Saints’ Day is All Hallows Day. The day before something is called the Eve (as in Christmas Eve). So 31st October is All Hallows’ Eve, and Hallowe’en is a shortening of that name, and Halloween shortens it even further.
A story about the meaning of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day has now been added here.
Halloween’s link with the Pagan tradition is that 31st October has long been the Pagan festival of Samhain. This was an important date in the ancient Celtic religion in Britain and other parts of Europe. The Celts thought that at the end of summer, the barrier between our world and the world of ghosts and spirits got really thin. This meant weird creatures with strange powers could wander about on Earth. So, the Celts had big parties, which were all about scaring away the ghosts and spirits.
Pagans see Samhain as a festival of death when they too remember and honour those who have gone before. Fires are lit and ‘dead wood’ is burned before stepping into the darkness of winter. The wheel of the year is seen to begin at Samhain. Pagans celebrate death as part of life. So, instead of being a time of fear, it is a time to understand more deeply that life and death are part of a whole.
The modern celebration of Halloween picks up ideas from both of these traditions. Traditional Halloween activities now include trick-or-treating, bonfires, costume parties, visiting ‘haunted houses’, and carving jack-o-lanterns. Irish and Scottish immigrants carried versions of the tradition to North America in the nineteenth century, where Halloween has really taken off. Other western countries embraced the holiday in the late twentieth century including Ireland, Canada, Puerto Rico, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
Did you know? One quarter of all the sweets sold annually in the US is purchased for Halloween! That’s why the photo for this article is of special ‘Halloween Candy’.
Photo by Petr Kratochvil