A tradition that refuses to die

Victoria Darragh


Illustration: Alice Wilson

With no discernible spiritual message and an imperative to buy sweets, costumes, decorations and alcohol, Halloween might seem like a celebration of capitalism. It wouldn’t be the first time in history that the tradition has been hijacked.

While many cultures celebrate death and rebirth at this time of year, such as the Mexican Día de los Muertos, or the English Guy Fawkes night, none has gained the stamp of American cultural approval like the Irish-hailing Halloween.

Love it or loathe it, there is no way the approach of Halloween has passed you by. Since the end of September, shops have been filled with sweets and costumes in anticipation of the night, characterised by both childhood celebration and adult debauchery.

What’s the occasion? For many the ancient and pagan origins of the festival are unknown. When we celebrate it, we are adhering to a mishmash of traditions from cultural sources as diverse as the Romans, early Christianity and the Celtic world.

The people who belonged to what we today call “Celtic” culture were spread across Ireland, the UK and Western Europe. For these people, the 31st of October represented the end of the year, and so came their festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-an). With the new year came the harshest winter months, and so it is understandable to see how they associated this time, and particularly this night – passing from one year into the next – with death.

For the Celts, Samhain was a night where the barriers between the living world and the world of the dead were obliterated, and the dead could mingle freely amongst the living, causing havoc and destruction. It was also believed that on this night it was possible for the spirits of the dead to possess the bodies of those who were alive.

While sources from the period are limited, our practice of lighting bonfires on Halloween may come from their practice of lighting a sacred bonfire to honour the gods. It is also thought they believed that during the night of Samhain, faeries would roam the land, going from door to door as beggars asking for food. Those who gave the faeries food were rewarded, whereas those who didn’t were punished – a little trick or treating, anyone?

Celtic culture was threatened by the growing Roman empire of the early first and second centuries AD. The Romans, too, had their own festivals around this time of year, including the early November harvest festival of Pomona.

Pomona’s symbol (the apple), her role as the goddess of fruit trees and abundance, and the coincidence of Samhain with the harvest festival and the opening of winter stores of fruit and nuts is very plausibly the reason behind the traditional Halloween treats of fruit and nuts. It is also possible that Pomona’s association with the apple is behind bobbing for apples as a Halloween game.

“It’s in Ireland that one of the most seemingly American of all Halloween practices began: pumpkin carving. Or, as it was here, turnip carving.”

Towards the end of the Roman empire, Christianity had begun to spread across Europe and the British Isles. Despite the Christianisation of many aspects of European cultures, Samhain continued to be celebrated. The Catholic Church, eager to remove these pagan elements from society, often subverted Celtic festival days and placed Christian events on or near to the time of year in which they fell, mobilising popular imagery and traditions in order to aid the conversion of European societies.

On 13th May AD 609, Pope Boniface IV rededicated the Pantheon in Rome to Christian martyrs, and the Catholic feast of All Saints’ Day (to commemorate all saints and martyrs) was established in the Western Church, to be celebrated on 1st November.

Samhain continued to be celebrated, however, so in AD 835 Pope Gregory IV moved the holiday to 1st November also, most likely in an attempt to shift attention from Samhain to the sanctioned All Saints’ Day. None of this, though, entirely halted the practicing of the old Samhain traditions of lighting bonfires, going from door to door for food and wearing costume.

We also get the name of Halloween from the old alternative name for All Saints’ Day – All Hallows, or All Hallowmas. As Samhain fell before All Hallows, it was All Hallows Eve – eventually compounding into Halloween.

The practice of trick-or-treating (though still not known by this name) continued to develop under new Christian traditions. Towards the end of the 10th century AD, 2nd November was designated by the church as All Souls’ Day.

In England, the poor would spend All Souls’ Day going from door to door, asking for food, and praying for the dead in return. In return for their prayers, the poor would be given “soul cakes”, and in some areas soul cakes would be handed out in return for a performance or song. This eventually became a child’s practice, done in return for food, ale or even money.

Halloween today is very much associated with America. While Halloween’s association with America is bolstered by cultural productions like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (the Washington Irving story, and later the film), it is in Ireland that one of the most seemingly American of all Halloween practices began: pumpkin carving. Or, as it was here, turnip carving.

There are at least two historical bases for this practice. One, from the Celts, who are thought to have used hollowed out gourd vegetables to hold embers from the sacred bonfire. But the second has its basis in Irish folklore, and began with the tale of Stingy Jack, a crook and a drunk.

Jack found himself having a drink with the Devil, and convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin so as to pay for their drinks. Once the Devil had transformed himself, however, Jack put the coin in his pocket next to a cross of silver, thereby trapping the Devil, who was unable to change himself back.

Upon the promise that he would leave Jack alone for a year, the Devil was freed – until, a year later, he returned, whereupon Jack tricked him again, this time asking him to get him a piece of fruit from a nearby tree. When the Devil had climbed into the tree, Jack carved a cross into it, preventing the Devil from climbing down. Until he had promised to no longer seek Jack’s soul, Jack would not let the Devil leave the tree.

Upon his death Jack, despite being fairly wily and apparently more intelligent than the Devil, hadn’t been the best person, and so was unable to enter heaven. However, his previous deal with the Devil had meant that neither was he able to enter hell.

The Devil, despite keeping his word, took pity on Jack, and so gave him an ember from the fires of hell, held in a hollowed out turnip, to light his way through the darkness as his spirit walked the earth for the rest of eternity. Around this time of year, when evil spirits were more prevalent, people from Ireland and Scotland would make “jack o’ lanterns” in order to scare away Stingy Jack from their homes and leave them in peace.

When British and Irish settlers began to travel to the New World, they presumably brought this practice with them – and they would have discovered at some point that pumpkins are infinitely easier to carve than a rock-solid turnip from the fields of Mayo.