It is official. Halloween is now the UK’s third biggest holiday, behind Christmas and Easter. Tonight a large percentage of the population will be dressing up and going trick or treating for sweets and money or else attending fancy dress parties to celebrate the festival.
So where did this popular holiday originate and what does the word Halloween actually mean?
The name Halloween comes from the Old English era. Originally spelled Hallowe’en, the name is actually the shortened form of All Hallows Evening, or the evening before All Saints’ Day, which falls on November 1st.
Ironically, All Saints’ Day was originally held on May 13th. Popes Gregory III (731–741) and Gregory IV (827–844) moved All Saints’ Day to November 1st in an attempt to supplant the pagan festival with the Christian holiday. Although All Saints’ Day is now considered to occur one day after Halloween, the two holidays were once celebrated on the same day.
Historians believe that the festival of Halloween is linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, meaning “summer’s end”. This festival celebrated the end of the so called “lighter half” of the year with the beginning of the “darker half”. It was sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year”.
The ancient Celts believed that the borders between this world and the world where our ancestors went to when they died became thin on Samhain, allowing the spirits of the departed (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. The family’s ancestors were honoured and invited to come home, whilst those harmful spirits were warded off.
It is thought that the need to ward off these harmful spirits is what led to the wearing of costumes and masks. The idea was if you disguised yourself as a harmful spirit, the real harmful spirits would not harm you.
So when you don your fancy dress costume tonight, whether it be at a Halloween party or to go out trick or treating, remember the Celtic festival of Samhain.