Thousands of years after they were originally developed, Halloween customs can, in fact, be considered a Celtic legacy. Traditions such as Trick-or-Treat and the much-loved Jack-o-Lantern pumpkins, which have always been popular with American and British children and are increasingly adopted by other cultures worldwide, do actually have their roots in ancient Celtic tradition.
Halloween itself (or Hallow’s eve – the night before All Hallows or All Saints’ Day) can be traced back to pre-Christian Ireland and the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), or ‘Summer’s end’, which celebrates the final harvest and marks the end of the light, warm half of the year and the beginning of the dark, cold half.
As in practically all ancient traditions, one of the main themes of Samhain was paying tribute to the dead. This involved a number of curious practices. For example, setting a place at the table for deceased relatives, placing lit lanterns and candles in front of the house to guide the family’s dead ancestors to their home, or leaving food and drink outside the house to appease roaming spirits.
So why would ghosts be wandering about on this night in the first place? Well, according to Celtic tradition, October 31st marked the end of summer and November 1st the beginning of winter and the new year. At the end of the last day of the old year and before the coming of the new year, therefore, the Celts believed that the ‘curtain’ separating the world of the dead and that of the living became ‘thin’, allowing the dead to cross over. This meant not only their own beloved departed ancestors, however, but also spirits trapped in animal forms and mischievous, bad spirits who amused themselves by playing trick on humans.
Needless to say, common mortals felt pretty vulnerable with all these spirits on the loose. For this reason, it is said, they dressed up in strange costumes so that any evil spirits they might meet outside their home would not recognize them as human. Even more important was the bonfire. Fire, in fact, was believed to ward off evil spirits, making it an essential part of Samhain. As time went on and civilisations developed, however, it became increasingly difficult to hold huge bonfires, and so the communal bonfire gradually evolved into the practice of placing lights outside the home in hollowed-out gourds, or pumpkins, carved with grotesque faces.
It is easy to believe, therefore, that the modern-day customs of ‘trick-or-treating’, dressing up and placing candle-lit pumpkins outside the home originate from the ancient Celtic traditions of disguising themselves, leaving food out for wandering spirits and lanterns to guide dead ancestors and ward off evil spirits.