Once a year, when the leaves begin to turn and the earth prepares for its winter slumber, the souls of the dead became restless and wake from theirs. Ghosts appear, ghouls howl and the dead walk. . . It’s Halloween!
When I was a kid, I loved dressing up for Halloween and running around getting candy.
I usually donned the costume of one of my favourite superheroes like Batman or Spider-Man, as I never understood the appeal of dressing up as something horrific or grotesque and wanting to be scared out of my pants.
In fact, I still don’t understand a lot of the more macabre of Halloween traditions.
So, I thought I would share a little research about the origins of Halloween to help anyone who shares my reservations about the holiday understand it a bit better.
Today, Halloween is an excuse to dress up crazily and run around causing mischief or consuming way more sugar than is good for us.
Its roots however, are much different.
Halloween, both the word and much of the celebration, derive from ‘All Hallows Eve’ and relates to the Christian celebration of All Souls Day on the first of November.
As with many other Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, traditions from other celebrations were incorporated into Halloween to aid Christians in converting other religions, mainly pagan.
The ideas of the dead walking and supernatural activity around Halloween are thought to come from an ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain.
During Samhain, the barriers between the living and the dead, the natural and supernatural worlds were said to weaken and the souls of the departed were said to return home to their families for one night.
Fire was used in a number of different symbols in these early Halloween celebrations. In many countries, people would light candles to guide the souls of family members home.
Others would carve and light jack-o-lanterns to recognize wandering souls who had yet to find a place of rest in either heaven or hell.
While the ghosts of these departed were respected and welcomed by their families who set places for them at the table, they and other spirits were also feared, and bonfires would be lit to help protect the living from any malevolent spirits that were about. To some degree, these practices continue to this day.
As for the idea of dressing up and visiting houses door to door to obtain treats, it is believed to have originated in the 16th century.
People in costume would usually perform some kind of feat, such as reciting verses, in exchange for food, money or drink (a practice known as ‘guising’ because of the costume or ‘guises’).
As the practice grew older, guisers would instead threaten to perform mischief to the property if they were not welcomed into a home. This is where the phrase ‘trick-or-treat’ comes from, though today it is mostly a catch-phrase-esque way of requesting a treat during Halloween.
As for guising as ghosts, skeletons or other symbols associated with death, there are a number of theories to explain where this practice originated.
For the most part, these seem to stem directly from Christianity’s involvement with the festival.
One of the most prevalent theories is that dressing up as deathly symbols, or evil supernatural beings came about as a way for Christians to mock death and Satan as they had been conquered by the saviour, Jesus Christ.
There is also some evidence to suggest a connection between donning costumes of dead spirits on the night before the dead are celebrated through All Souls Day.