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The History of Halloween

Did you know?:
Our ancestors celebrated New Year on November 1st.
They celebrated their New Year's Eve on October 31st.
Samhain (pronounced 'sow-in') marked the end of the "season of the sun" (Summer) and the beginning of "the season of darkness and cold" ( Winter).

The Facts

Neither the word Halloween or the date 31 October are mentioned in any Anglo-Saxon text indicating that it was just an ordinary day a thousand years ago.

From the Medieval period (1066 - 1485) through to the 19th century, there is no evidence that 31 October was anything else other than the eve of All Saints Day.

From the 19th Century to the present day, 31st October has increasingly acquired a reputation as a night on which ghost, witches, and fairies, are especially active.

All Saints Day - 1 November

In the year 835 AD the Roman Catholic Church made 1st November a church holiday to honour all the saints. Although it was a joyous holiday it was also the eve of All Souls Day, so in Medieval times it became customary to pray for the dead on this date.

Another name for All Saints Day is 'All Hallows' (hallow is an archaic English word for 'saint'). The festival began on All Hallows Eve, the last night of October.

Where does the name Halloween originate from?

Halloween comes from All Hallow Even, the eve (night before) All Hallows day. Therefore, Halloween is the eve of All Saints Day.

What similarities are there between the Celts and Halloween?

Evil spirits

The Celts believed that evil spirits came with the long hours of winter darkness. They believed that on that night the barriers between our world and the spirit world were at their weakest and therefore spirits were most likely to be seen on earth.

Bonfires

The Celts built bonfires to frighten the spirits away, and feasted and danced around the fires. The fires brought comfort to the souls in purgatory* and people prayed for them as they held burning straw up high.

(*Purgatory is a place where souls are temporarily punished for venial sins. After they have been punished enough, they are permitted to move on to heaven.)

bonfire

The fires of Halloween burned the strongest in Scotland and Ireland, where Celtic influence was most pronounced, although they lingered on in some of the northern counties of England until the early years of the last century.

Bonfire celebrations moved to 5th November

In England, the day of fires became 5th November (Bonfire Night), the anniversary of the Gunpowder plot of 1605, but its closeness to Halloween is more than a coincidence. Halloween and Bonfire Night have a common origin they both originated from pagan times, when the evil spirits of darkness had to be driven away with noise and fire.

bonfire night

Halloween Customs

In Lancashire, 'Lating' or 'Lighting the witches' was an important Halloween custom. People would carry candles from eleven to midnight. If the candles burned steadily the carriers were safe for the season, but if the witches blew them out, the omen was bad indeed.

In parts of the north of England Halloween was known as Nut-crack Night. Nuts were put on the fire and, according to their behaviour in the flames, forecast faithfulness in sweethearts and the success or failure of marriages.

CostumeHalloween was also sometimes called Snap Apple Night, in England. A game called snap apple was played where apples were suspended on a long piece of string. Contestants had to try an bite the apple without using their hands. A variation of the game was to fix an apple and a lighted candle at opposite ends of a stick suspended horizontally and to swing the stick round. The object was to catch the apple between the teeth whilst avoiding the candle.

Many places in England combined Halloween with Mischief Night (celebrated on 4 November), when boys played all kinds of practical jokes on their neighbours. They changed shop signs, took gates off their hinges, whitewashed doors, and tied door latches.


Find out more about Mischief Night

Another tradition from which Halloween customs might have come from is a ninth century European custom, souling. It was a Christian festival where people would make house calls begging for soul cakes. It was believed that even strangers could help a soul's journey to heaven by saying prayers, so, in exchange for a cake they promised to pray for the donors' deceased relatives.

Find out more about the Christian Festival 'All Souls Day' and the Soul Cakes.

why

So why do we do what we do on Halloween in England?

Traditions and Superstitions of Halloween

Facts about Halloween

 

 

 

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© Copyright Mandy Barrow 2013

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Mandy is the creator of the Woodlands Resources section of the Woodlands Junior website. 
The two websites projectbritain.com and primaryhomeworkhelp.co.uk are the new homes for the Woodlands Resources.

Mandy left Woodlands in 2003 to work in Kent schools as an ICT Consulatant. 
She now teaches computers at The Granville School and St. John's Primary School in Sevenoaks Kent.