The Evolution of Halloween


Halloween straddles the line between autumn and winter. Some people love it – and why not? It’s an excuse to dress up and get free food, hopefully of the dessert variety; whilst others loathe it and have a Grinch-esque attitude toward the celebrations. So how did an ancient tradition transform into a night where it’s acceptable to stalk around people’s homes in costumes and be rewarded with sweets?

The Name

Why is Halloween called Halloween? Anyone who knows anything about early English history knows that Britain was a hotspot for change. After the Saxons invaded, followed by the invasion of more Saxons, Britain as we know it today, was introduced to Christianity. Along with Christianity came the Christian festivals and holidays including “All Hallows’ Day”. The night of October 31 therefore became known as All-hallows-even then Hallow Eve, still later referred to as Hallowe’en and then of course, finally, Halloween.

The Date

The spooky date as we know it, is derived from the Celtic festival of Samhain which was actually celebrated on November 1. Essentially, the Celts used this to say goodbye to summer and its happiness and joy and hello to winter with its death and misery. Cheerful, right?


In the belief that spirits, ghosts and ghouls were in the air the before Samhain, which is where the magical date of October 31 comes in, the Celts would dress up in masks and costumes, in order to avoid being possessed. Thanks to popular culture, in recent years, the aim of many Halloween costumes has gone from looking scary to looking as outlandish as possible in order to attract general attention. Not quite what the Celts had in mind.

Apple Bobbing

As many Halloween traditions have been influenced by the Celts and their practices, it’s might be surprising that the idea of sticking only your head in a bucket of water and trying to emerge with an apple actually came from the Romans. One of the Roman festivals put a great emphasis on the mighty apple as a symbol, and as the Romans invaded the Celts, whom we got our Halloween idea from, the apple bobbing tradition began. And why not? Apples are great.

Trick or Treating

The tradition of giving out sweets to people dressed up only actually surface in the 1930s and boy, have the Americans taken this on board! Supposedly, the American nation spent $7 bn on it last year. That’s a lot of sweets, and a lot of trips to the dentist – so maybe that’s why the figure is so high? Trick or treating is thought to have stemmed from a tradition called ‘souling’, where the poor would go from house to house begging for food and in return would pray for the family’s dead relatives. But as always, in the modern day and age we prefer to ignore things related to plight and make them more fun, by giving out sweets for example.

Jack O’Lantern

The word “Jack-o’-lantern” has changed in meaning several times. It was first recorded as a nickname for a night watchman, dating back to 1663 and now it’s the name for a pumpkin with a light inside. However, an Irish legend tells of a  man named Jack who tricked the Devil into agreeing not to take him into Hell. But, unfortunately he’d been quite sinful so he wasn’t allowed into Heaven either. Poor Jack was condemned to wander between Heaven and Hell with his lantern, looking for a place to rest and never finding one.

Pumpkin Carving

There seems to be an unspoken rule that a Jack O’ Lantern, also known as a Will O’ the Wisp, has to be made from a pumpkin. We can thank American popular culture for this, as the act of the carving of faces into hollowed-out vegetables, was originally carried out with other root vegetables such as swedes and turnips. So if you can’t find a suitable pumpkin, don’t worry, just nip down to Sainsburys and try and find a nice looking swede. But why do we spend ages carving a vegetable that’s really difficult to carve only to leave it to slowly decay on our window sill with a candle inside? It was believed that the scary carved faces in the lanterns would ward off any evil spirits. I don’t know about evil spirits, but no junk mail would be appreciated.

Noise and Parties

Most people love parties, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t like Halloween parties! But, many parties can come with quite a bit of noise. We can actually trace back a form of celebration to the Irish Catholics who remembered the souls of all the departed by banging on pots and pans to let the dead know they were not forgotten and lit bonfires to scare away the wandering souls.

So there you go, you know a lot more about what you’re celebrating this year. Happy Halloween!



Law student at the University of Southampton.

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