Halloween was originally All Hallow’s Eve, a Catholic ceremony held the day before All Hallow’s Day (or All Saint’s Day) on November 1st. All Hallow’s Day was a time for Christians to say prayers for the souls of the dead who were stuck in Purgatory.
Most historians agree that Halloween dates back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain celebrated 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. This was a time when people living there celebrated their New Year on November 1 Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”), which means “summer’s end” in Gaelic and this was a day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter.
The worlds between the death and living became blurred. For ancient Celts this was a time when ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
The ghosts of the dead were believed to damage crops and to combat the threat, ancient Celts often held raging bonfires – fire being a common way to ward off evil spirits.
The practice continued throughout the region even after Christianity took hold in the Middle Ages and the festival was renamed All Hallows’ Eve. Later, in towns, the fires shrank and were instead placed within turnips or gourds, which were inexpensive, readily available and safe “containers.”
According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore:
“Certainly Samhain was a time for festive gatherings, and medieval Irish texts and later Irish, Welsh, and Scottish folklore use it as a setting for supernatural encounters, but there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead in pre-Christian times, or that pagan religious ceremonies were held.”
According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink and Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, by Nicholas Rogers:
“Development of artifacts and symbols associated with Halloween formed over time. For instance, the carving of jack-o’-lanterns springs from the souling custom of carving turnips into lanterns as a way of remembering the souls held in purgatory. The turnip has traditionally been used in Ireland and Scotland at Halloween, but immigrants to North America used the native pumpkin, which are both readily available and much larger – making them easier to carve than turnips.”
According to Mary Reed Newland writing at Catholic Education.org:
Begging at the door grew from an ancient English custom of knocking at doors to beg for a “soul cake” in return for which the beggars promised to pray for the dead of the household. Soul cakes, a form of shortbread — and sometimes quite fancy, with currants for eyes — became more important for the beggars than prayers for the dead, it is said. Florence Berger tells… a legend of a zealous cook who vowed she would invent soul cakes to remind them of eternity at every bite. So she cut a hole in the middle and dropped it in hot fat, and lo — a doughnut. Circle that it is, it suggests the never-ending of eternity. Truth or legend, it serves a good purpose at Halloween.
The refrains sung at the door varied from “a soul cake, a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake,” to the later:
Soul, soul, an apple or two,
If you haven’t an apple, a pear will do,
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for the Man Who made us all.
Here they had either run out of soul cakes or plain didn’t care. Charades, pantomimes, and little dramas, popular remnants of the miracle and morality plays of the Middle Ages, commonly rehearsed the folk in the reality of life after death and the means to attain it. It is probably from these that the custom of masquerading on Halloween had its beginning. The folly of a life of selfishness would be the message pantomimed by the damned; the torment of waiting, the message of the souls from Purgatory; the delights of the beatific vision, the message of the Heaven-sent.
This is interesting history to be sure, but don’t let it worry you overmuch as you travel from door to door in a quest for the best candy. Have a fun and safe Halloween!