Halloween: A Brief History

The evening and night of the 31st October every year is the event called Halloween, it is a magical time celebrated by people of all faiths today and especially children are delighted in dressing up as ghosts and skeletons going from door to door doing trick-or-treating, they carry hollowed out pumpkin lanterns singing ghastly songs and are rewarded for their efforts with candy and sometimes a few coins to spend the next day.

There is a lot of meaning behind the history of Halloween which has been lost as we celebrate our modern version but its roots are still well known and make a great story for children before they set off on their mission to frighten and entertain. Originally Halloween was known by the Celtic name ‘Samhain’ which some historians believe that it might be how the word ’summer’ originated.


Halloween legend

Thousands of years ago the Celtic people of Western Europe particularly the British Isles and Western France believed that on the last day of summer which is roughly the same day as 31st October, the barriers between the living world and the kingdom of the dead would open allowing spirits and saints to pass among the living.

Evil spirits would go from door to door scaring people and anyone unlucky to be out had to hurry back before the spirits could catch them and take them back to the kingdom of the dead. It was a night of terror and to protect themselves the people would turn to the priests also known as the druids and protectors of the Celts. They would light great fires and offer sacrifices to make the evil spirits calm down until the barriers had closed again the next day.

The evil spirits were often battled by the gods and other good spirits but they needed the help of the living world to keep away the evil spirits from tearing down completely the barrier separating the two worlds. Sacrifices of animal bones were thrown into the fire being called the bone fire which is how the bonfire came to be part of the history of Halloween.

In return for helping the gods fight the evil spirits on the Samhain night, the gods would make it possible for the druids to predict the future and see the weather and health of their king for the next year, it allowed the Celts to prepare their seeds and stockpile food to carry them through the seasons.

The druid also recited poems to the sun which they believed to be a god so that it would return the following year and change the temperature by warming the earth. The winter months were cold, dark and nothing would grow much. Celtic people of that time also believed that if the sun did not return they would be too weak to help the saints fight the evil spirits and that ultimately the devil would win and the earth would perish.

Roman and Christian Halloween

After the invasion of the Celtic lands by Romans many of the Celts converted to Roman pagan rituals but still kept many of their own Celtic festivals. Samhain was one of these however the celebrations were merged with Roman festivities that happened around the same time. One of these was the festival of Pomona known as the Roman goddess of fruit and trees.

The symbol of Pomona was the apple which gave rise to the tradition of bending over a barrel and trying to bite the bobbing apple with our hands behind our backs. This was a tradition which has survived into the 21st century in the British Isles and is making a return in other parts of the world that celebrate Halloween and its history.

When the Christian faith had finally found its way to Ireland and the people converted to the Roman Catholic church from their traditional Pagan beliefs, many of the old celebrations and feasts became Christian celebrations and Samhain was also not different and it instead became All Hallows Eve also known as All Saints Day.

Sacrifices were not allowed for long time period and instead of druids reciting poems, monks and priests would chant hymns honoring the Saints of Christendom. The Saints were asked to keep looking over the people and in some masses were begged not to forsake the living and continue performing miracles.


The first of November commonly known as All Souls Day is a day of remembrance for the loved ones departed and in many parts of the world is a day when families would visit the graves of their loved ones to place flowers and tell them all that has happened in the world since the last year. It is a time of celebration for many rather than a time of sadness.

The celebrity of Jack o’ lantern

Halloween changed in the 19th and 20th centuries from being a religious celebration to an annual holiday mostly for children who dress in costumes and wander from house to house singing songs in small groups. Besides this, a favorite tradition that started in the USA and is now spreading to other parts of the world is the pumpkin lantern carved into a scary face with a candle inside known as Jack o’ lantern.

The story behind Jack with the lantern is another old classic, a man in Ireland who had stolen from the villagers and while he was being chased out of town he met the devil who had come to claim Jack’s soul. Jack managed to strike a deal with the devil for the villagers souls in exchange for his freedom. The devil would turn into a silver coin that Jack would give to the villagers as payment for his crimes and when the villagers were in their beds, the devil would return to normal form and take the villagers one by one. Jack cunningly put the coin into a purse that also contained a cross thus trapping the devil and allowing Jack to escape.

Jack died many years later but for his sins is denied from Heaven but the devil still remembers his treatment at Jack’s hands and forbids him entrance in to Hell, thus Jack was forever doomed to wander the in the dark nights. The devil’s parting gift to Jack is a sliver hot coal from the fires of hell which Jack places in a lantern to aid him in his travels.

The pumpkin lantern for Halloween we use today reminds us of the deal Jack did and originally was made from any large vegetable that was available. It was a large orange or yellow pumpkin in the USA. The top is cut off and the flesh scraped out then a scary face carved into the side. The light from the candle flashing off reflects the yellow flesh giving a suitably scary look to the lantern.