Halloween: A History

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We’ve all heard the rumour that Halloween is the Frankenstein’s monster creation of the candy and greetings card companies.

With the massive boost in profits that these industries see around the period of the holiday, it is perhaps unsurprising that many hold this sceptical view.

As the time is nearly upon us, it seemed like a perfect time to dive into the history of Halloween and to put this belief to rest once and for all.

Pumpkin prison

The most commonly agreed root of Halloween pre-dates Christianity, let alone confectionery. Samhain, a holiday still celebrated today in the Wiccan faith amongst others, was one of the four main Celtic holidays. The equivalent of new year, the Celts believed that on Samhain the souls of the dead would move on and were therefore more accessible to the living than at other times of the year. People would make sacrifices and light bonfires both to honour those who had died and to protect themselves from the things that go bump in the night.

As Christianity came to be the nation’s principal religion, many festivals and days of celebration overlapped those that had been in place before.

All Saints’ Day on November 1st is an example of this – it was intended to supersede the celebrations of Samhain which had started on October 31st (the Christian ‘All Hallows Eve’) and went on into the first day of November.

This holiday is a lot bigger in some countries than in others (in France, All Saints’ is called Toussaint and is important enough that the two-week school holiday at the end of October is named after it) but does not seem to have ever completely overwritten Halloween. Here in Le Havre, some of my students are already getting excited about Halloween which seems to be becoming ever more popular as an international day of celebration and of community.

The Wessex Scene does not recommend trying to eat lit pumpkins

Admittedly, the day has taken on a decidedly more commercial nature and continues to do so. But, it is still primarily about the dead and our love of all things spooky and mysterious. For most, surely it is the case that the word ‘Halloween’ conjures images of ghosts, ghouls and jack-o-lanterns (the modern day bonfire) before it brings to mind the harsh reality of modern consumerism?

With this in mind, I think it’s easy to see why I (and so many other students) think that Halloween is a brilliant holiday. It’s the one night of the year where even your stingiest housemate goes all-out with their fancy dress (how much of your costume is lost/stolen in Jesters is irrelevant) and it’s given me some of the best memories of my degree. The best photos? Not so much…

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Undergraduate student studying English Literature and French. I write features and theatre reviews.

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