Halloween has origins in the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which means roughly “summer’s end”. This Gaelic festival was celebrated mainly in Ireland and Scotland. It marked the end of summer and harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night of the 31st October the worlds of the living and the dead became thin and blurred and that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks.

With its roots in Celtic cultures, Halloween is not celebrated in all countries and regions of the world, and among those that do the traditions and importance of the celebration vary significantly. Celebration in the United States has seen a significant impact on how the holiday is observed in other nations. The history of Halloween traditions in a given country also lends context to how it is presently celebrated. But many countries have been influenced by the strongly commercialised version as celebrated in the USA. This to the benefit of many confectionary and costume makers.

Halloween is also knows as All Hallows’ Eve. On All Hallows’ eve, many Irish and Scottish people have traditionally placed a candle on their western window sill to honour the departed. Other traditions include carving lanterns from turnips, sometimes with faces on them, as is done in the modern tradition of carving pumpkins. The American tradition of carving pumpkins preceded the Great Famine period of Irish immigration, which saw a large population of Irish people moving from Ireland to America. These Irish immigrants took with them their traditions and slowly spread the festive of Hallowe’en. With the great abundance of pumpkins in America, turnips were replaced by the new bright orange products.

The holiday comes in the wake of the annual apple harvest, which makes candy apples (known as toffee apples outside North America), caramel or taffy apples a common Halloween treat. A popular Halloween game is dunking or apple bobbing, in which apples float in a tub or a large basin of water and the participants must use their teeth to remove an apple from the basin.

The tradition of going from door to door receiving food already existed in Britain and Ireland, in the form of ‘souling’, where children and poor people would sing and say prayers for the dead in return for cakes, which also makes an appearance in modern day Christmas carols. The custom of wearing costumes and masks at Halloween goes back to Celtic traditions of attempting to copy the evil spirits.

The earliest known reference to “trick or treat” occurs just after WWI, when it was normal for smaller children to visit local shops and neighbours to be rewarded with nuts and candies for their rhymes and songs. Before the 1980’s “trick or treat” was mainly known in the USA, but started to slowly makes its way to the United Kingdom. However it is still uncommon in most European countries. Trick-or-treating is now custom for American and British children on Halloween. Children proceed in costume from house to house, asking for treats such as confectionery, or sometimes money, with the question, “Trick or treat?” The “trick” is an idle threat to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given.

In America it is more a family occassion where parents can keep an eye on their children or older siblings can be given the responsibility to prove their worth of a later Halloween party. In Britian the trick part has been known to be abused because of the close availability of eggs, flour and fireworks. Fireworks are already in store for the 5th of November to mark Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, the penny for the Guy may find a mischievious use during Halloween.

In most Christian countries people traditionally celebrate All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, which is on the 1st November. All Saints’ Day is in honour of all the saints, known and unknown. In many Catholic countries families will visit the graves of their deceased ancestors and where prayers and flowers are offered, candles are lit and the graves themselves are cleaned, repaired and repainted. The origins of All Saints’ Day go back much further in the past then Hallowe’en. The first references to All Saints’ Day go back as far as 741AD. For many decades Hallowe’en was simply known as the eve before All Saints’ Day. It’s not until the 1800’s that a link between Hallowe’en and All Saints’ Day is made.

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5 Responses to “Halloween – costumes of horror and their ancient Celtic origins”

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  2. Celtic Woman

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  3. Daniel Shorb

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