Halloween origins: how different are our fears from those of the past?

Halloween is a longstanding tradition in much of the Western world. But why do we dedicate a day to fear, and in what ways is the evolution of societal fears demonstrated through Halloween activities?

Halloween itself owes its origins to many different influences, arguably the most interesting being the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Samhain symbolised the entrance into the ‘darker half’ of the year during winter, as written in Patricia Monaghan’s The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. It includes many traditions such as making offerings and lighting bonfires. But how specifically does this link to Halloween? Anyone with knowledge of the ancient or medieval periods acknowledges the fear associated with the wintertime, which often brought disease and hunger if they failed to produce enough food. Notwithstanding this, if we imagine the connotations of darkness itself, thoughts of the unknown, evil, and monsters are forced to the forefront, which in itself is a source of fear. However, the thing that links Samhain more explicitly to Halloween is the belief that the barriers separating this world from the ‘Otherworld’, or the afterlife, thinned during this time allowing spirits to enter our world more easily.

As with the modern presentation of the supernatural or the afterlife, they believed in both good and evil entities. This is reflected in the different traditions for example, offerings were made to these spirits in the hope that they would be rewarded with the survival of their livestock, according to Kevin Danaher in The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Also, places were set around dinnertime for the souls of the dead, as written in McNeill’s The Silver Bough, suggesting that such forces were welcomed, rather than feared. On the other hand, bonfires were lit in the belief that the smoke and ashes had protective and cleansing properties which would hold back darkness and decay, much like the heat of the sun.

Underlying all these practices is the unquestionable fear of death, whether that’s by starvation or the actions of evil spirits.

Perhaps more widely recognised is the influence Christianity has had on modern day Halloween. All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Day, is the Christian feast day of Saints, whether they’re known or unknown, as well as being a day of prayer for the souls in purgatory. Again, we ask ourselves, how does this link to Halloween? On this day, dating back at least to the 15th Century, we see one of the possible origins for trick-or-treating, previously called souling, according to Nicholas Rogers’ Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.  The name souling comes from the tradition of baking and sharing soul cakes which children would collect door to door in exchange for praying for the dead. Similarly, the custom of wearing costumes can also find its origins with the Christian All Hallows’ Eve; the night before All Hallows’ Day. The belief that the dead cross over to the world of the living is also evident in this tradition, it was believed that the souls of the dead were given the chance to seek vengeance. According to Prince Sorie Conteh, people would dress up in costume to avoid being recognised by the evil souls.

In what ways does this compare, then, to our current Halloween traditions? Certainly the Celtic fear of darkness is something we can relate to, although most commonly associated with children who share with the ancient Celts a lack of knowledge and understanding of the world. Furthermore, this intense panic, entrenched in the fibres of society, felt towards death and lack of existence could be considered as immortal, having lasted through the ages.

So, if we examine the base fears associated with Halloween, it is evident that we are not so different from our ancestors living hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. Whilst today we can explain away monsters and devils with science and technology, we share the same ignorance over death and the afterlife. Ignoring the obvious commercialisation of the holiday, a lot of the fun and exciting traditions we practise today, such as dressing up or trick-or-treating, we owe to the serious anxieties and horrors of those before us. Lest we not forget this during the spooky season, or else some evil souls may appear to remind us!

Featured Image: Daniel Maclise on Flickr with license 

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