Halloween – a brief history by Merlin Fraser

In crime on November 1, 2012 at 8:39 am

At this time of year if I was squirrel I suppose I should be more concerned about making sure I had enough nuts to last the winter than thinking about Halloween.  However in reality it amounts to pretty much the same thing.


Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every year millions of people all over the world celebrate Halloween, after all it is fast becoming the most popular holiday after Christmas, yet I suspect very few of the revelers have any idea of the true Pagan origins from whence it came.
To many it is a light hearted night of fun where the young go ‘Trick or Treating’ as daylight fades into darkness and then with themed and costumed parties the adults take over.  While to others Halloween is a time of evil spirits and ghosts and something we should not mess with.
Of course, as with most things Pagan many of the distortions from the truth come from the early days of the Christian church’s wild attempts to suppress all but their version of religion.  Not that we should forget Hollywood’s scary movies, which doesn’t exactly help anything either, but there it is, tell a lie often enough and when most people believe it… it must therefore be the truth.   However, as we know only too well history is always written by the winners therefore it is their version of the truth that goes forward and so it is with Halloween.
In reality, Halloween was never about evil but a celebration, the Celtic festival of ‘Samhain (or ‘Samuin’ as it is sometimes spelt),  a name derived from old Irish and literally translates to mean summer’s end.  It was a harvest festival and a time to take stock of food supplies for the coming  long winter months.
The ancient Celts also believed that the border between our world and the one beyond became thin on Samhain,allowing spirits (both good and evil) to pass through.  Ancient ancestors were celebrated and invited home while harmful spirits were warded off.
It is from the traditions of the warding off the evil spirits that we adopt the custom of wearing costumes as part of our modern Halloween celebrations.   The original purpose was to disguise yourself as an evil spirit and so avoid harm while you placed gifts and treats on the outskirts of the village to lure them away from the houses.   This was seen as a way to entice the bad spirits away and so ensure the village would be safe from evil and that next year’s harvest would be successful.
Not too hard to see where the tradition of ‘Trick or Treating’ comes from.
Another method of warding off the evil spirits and preventing them entering the home was in the form of a carved face.  Large turnips were hollowed out and a face cut into the front, these were made into lanterns and placed in window and doors.
Anyone who ventured out in the dark would have carried the lantern as protection.   This Scottish tradition crossed the Atlantic with the early immigrants where turnips were replaced by the more plentiful pumpkin and the tradition of Jack-o’-lanterns was born.
Hands up all those who leave a carved lantern on your doorstep to ward off evil spirits on ‘All Hallows Night’?
The week preceding the Samhain festival day of October 31st would have been a busy time involving all of the village in preparing for winter.  Many of the village’s livestock would have been slaughtered, because in those times it was near impossible to store enough food to sustain both people and animals.   It is this harvesting of live stock that led to the erroneous claims by certain religious groups that Pagans sacrificed animals to the devil as part of this dark celebration.
Even today many parents swayed no doubt by ill-informed and biased church leaders forbid their children from the fun of Halloween in the mistaken belief that it is actually some form of dark Pagan satanic ritual or devil worship. At this time of year I try to remind them that Satan and the Devil are actually religious inventions as is all Hallows Eve.  Sorry !
Bonfires too would have played an important part in establishing the various rituals. In some places two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and the villagers and their livestock would walk between them in a cleansing ritual.
This is more than likely to be the origin of the ritual black and orange colours we now associated with the Halloween.   The black of night and the orange of the bonfire flames !
It wasn’t until the Catholic Christian church started to take a serious hold of all things religious throughout Europe with papal edicts flying around to put a stop to all things Pagan that we actually see where the name Halloween comes from.
Hallowe’en is short for ‘All Hallows’ Evening.’  All Hallows comes from an old English word halig’ meaning holy. It was courtesy of Pope Gregory who move the All Saints feast day from May to November 1st somewhere about 800 AD as one of the church’s many attempts to end the Pagan festival of Samhain.
So, there you have it, All Hallows’ Eve was created to allow the Pagans to retain their long standing tradition of honouring their ancestors before going to church to join celebrating the feast of All Saints day.
Of course, now you know that if you carve pumpkins into scary faces and turn them into lanterns, dress up for the occasion and let the kids go ‘Trick or Treating’ and all enjoy the celebrations without going to church the following day then, in fact, you are celebrating Samhain and not Hallowe’en.
You closet Pagan you !
As a small footnote:    If you happen to be a young single female, there is an old tradition that if you stand before a mirror in a room illuminated only with your lantern you will see the man you will marry standing behind you.
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Related articles
The History of Halloween (
An Irish Samhain (

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