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Halloween Then and Now

Everything Old is New Again

Ever wonder the origins of our modern-day Halloween? Our holiday represents a merging of ancient Celtic culture and 8th Century Catholicism. Pope Boniface IV designated the day as All Saints’ Day. The day was spent in honor of martyrs and saints of the Church. The festival, originally called “All Hallows’ Day” actually started the evening before, since back then “next day” began in the evening. Thus, October 31st was “All Hallow’s Evening”, shortened to “All Hallow’s Even”, to … you guessed it! Amazingly, many of our modern-day holiday traditions come directly from these days of ore.

The UNDEAD and Costume-Donning

In ancient Celtic times, it was believed that on one day a year, the dead revisited the Earth on a day called Samhuinn, meaning hallow tide or season or the feast of all souls. So emerged the contemporary theme of Halloween as revolving around the undead and monstrous, decomposed figures. Dressing in costumes is a tradition dating back to Celtic times, when people would dress as dead figures in order to disguise themselves from the real spirits. It was believed that, in so doing, protection would inure to the wearer of the costume. Any journey was to be completed by sundown, roughly akin to our practice of having Trick or Treaters finish their travels in early evening.


Bonfires also date back to the Celtic times. It was believed that by throwing a lock of one’s hair into a bonfire on Samhain would enable one to see their future spouse in the fire. In Scotland, one would throw nuts into the fire to create the vision. Today, we do not incorporate such fanciful practices into Halloween bonfires, but the bonfire remains a symbol of the autumnal season nonetheless, as does the practice of fortune-telling on Halloween. Again, that which is considered ancient is still in use today!

The bonfire tradition in Celtic culture did have a more ominous side. After the bonfire went out, ashes were swept together and placed in a huge circle. Each village family would then place a stone inside the circle and, if the stone was moved in any way the next day, death would come to someone within that family. Chilling, isn’t it? Today, our Halloween folklore incorporates tales of various untimely and dreaded ends for revelers, too.

Turnip Anyone?

So what about the old Halloween pumpkin tradition? Again, the practice stems from the ancient Celts, who carved turnips into skeleton head figures to protect their homes from evil spirits at night. The turnip would be made into a lantern to ward off such unearthly ne’er to wells. Because turnips were less available in the New World, the practice developed into pumpkin carving on this side of the Atlantic.


Carved turnip picture from the University of British Columbia
Carved turnip picture from the University of British Columbia

And now:

The Author (far right), with her pumpkin in 1969
The Author (far right), with her pumpkin in 1969

Knowing just a bit about Halloween in ancient times adds richness and texture to a modern holiday that might otherwise seem a bit outlandish. Our current traditions seem a little less absurd when one realizes just how such practices emerged over thousands of years.

About Kate Baldwin

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