"By the time Hallowe’en arrived"
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeJack-o'-Lantern - Credit: Toby Ord

Halloween is a holiday celebrated with costumes – the more gruesome the better – parties, scary movies, ghost tours, Jack-o’-Lantern carvings and trick-or-treating. Every 31st October, most of us join these festivities without any idea of the true meaning behind this night.

Halloween has its roots in the Celtic festival Samhain, meaning ‘the end of summer’. The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in Ireland, Britain and parts of northern France, celebrated their New Year with the beginning of the cold, wet days of winter and the end of their harvest season.

Winter was associated with death, and it was widely believed that during the night when the seasons changed the border between Earth and the spirit world thinned, allowing spirits – both good and evil – to pass through. On Samhain, the Celts made huge bonfires and sacrificed food and animals to their deities, in order to protect their crops from these spirits. They wore horrifying costumes with masks, normally made from animal’s heads and skins, to ward off the evil spirits from their houses.

When the Romans conquered the Celtic lands, two of their festivals were combined with that of Samhain. One of these festivals, Feralia, celebrated in late October, commemorated the passing of the dead. The other was a festival that honoured the Goddess of Fruit and Trees, Pomana. The symbol of this Goddess is the apple, which is why during Halloween parties some play the game ‘bobbing for apples’.

By 800 AD, Christians had started to influence these pagan beliefs. Pope Boniface IV declared 1st November to be All Hallows Day or, as we know it today, All Saints Day. The word Halloween is derived from the ancient Old Hallows Eve – that is, the night before All Hallows Day.