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What is Halloween?

Rachel Sherlock By Rachel Sherlock Published on October 18, 2016

Halloween has surged in popularity over the past decade, becoming one of the biggest celebrations on the American calendar. Spending on Halloween in America is expected to reach $8 billion this year and it supports a range of industries  from confectioneries to film-making. While it is most commonly associated with North America, Halloween's popularity is spreading globally. Yet it remains one of the most misunderstood holidays, and is linked a range of taboo activities from occult practices to dangerous drinking. But what is Halloween and where did it come from?

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The word 'Halloween' dates from around 1745, and originated from the Christian celebration of All Saints' Day on November 1st. In Scotland, the day of celebratory vigil before this feast day was known as All Hallows' Eve. The word 'hallow' stems from Old English halig meaning holy. The name would eventually contract to 'Halloween.' However, this Christian celebration is not the origin of the traditions and customs of Halloween. Rather, it is likely that the date was chosen because it coincided with an existing Celtic festival. The name may be Christian, but practice was founded in the harvest celebration of people across Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.

This harvest festival, called Oíche Shamhna in Ireland (pronounced ee-ha how-na, and meaning the night of summer's end), was one of the most important festivities of the year. It was the culmination of the harvest season of Samhain (pronounced sow-inn). The crops were gathered, animals were slaughtered, and a large feast was held to mark the end of the harvest and the beginning of a new year. 

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Along with the feasting, great fires were lit. These were known as tine cnámh, which translates as 'bone fire,' the same combination which gives us the modern word 'bonfire.' The name comes from the fact that the fires were used to burn the bodies of humans and animals. The bone ash was then scattered on fields as a symbol of returning to the earth as part of the cyclical nature of life. The feasting and bonfires are elements which are recognisable in today's celebration, but the deathly aspect of tine cnámh brings us to Halloween's most iconic and beloved feature: it's association with the scary and the supernatural. 

Samhain stands at a hinge in time during the year, moving from the summer’s light to winter’s darkness, and so from life to death. The sense of this being a transitional, liminal time led to its close connection with the returning dead and the supernatural. Celtic tradition held that at Samhain, borders between our world and that of the supernatural Otherworld became blurred and more easily crossed. There was no more likely time to encounter spirits and ghostly figures, than during the celebration of Samhain.

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A Banshee in Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825 

Now we may be more familiar with vampires and werewolves haunting our Halloweens, the original spectres of Oíche Shamhna were quite different. Along with the spirits of ghostly ancestors, the main proponents of fear were a race of supernatural beings, known in Irish mythology as the Aos Sí (pronounced ay-oss shee). Also found in Scottish mythology, these beings are often compared to fairies, however they are not the quaint and diminutive common in modern imagination. Instead, they were more human-like beings with magical powers. They were based on the Tuatha Dé Dannan, a race of Irish deities who had dwelt in Ireland before an invading race called the Milesians forced them in a parallel Otherworld beneath the country's burial mounds. These deities later became the Aos Sí, which translates as 'people of the mound'. There are various kinds of Aos Sí, perhaps the most famous of these is the bean sídh, or banshee, the wailing woman whose cry is a death omen. 

As the boundaries of these burial mounds opened up for Samhain, the spirits and Aos Sí  which issued forth needed to be either appeased or evaded. One of the ways this was achieved was through the practice of guising, which has been recorded as early as the 16th century. This tradition of donning disguises and visiting houses in a community may have been either to represent the spirits and receive appeasement on their behalf, or to protect themselves by blending in with the wandering spirits. It was in this veiled and transformed state that the tradition of mischief became incorporated into the festival. While disguised as the Aos Sí  they might enact the good and bad fortune caused by a failure to appease them. It’s easy to see trick-or-treating emerging from these practices and beliefs.

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A traditional Irish turnip lantern

Trick-or-treating was not the only custom to come out of interacting with the Aos Sí. While some communities left doors open and fires lit for ghostly visitors, others stayed inside out of reach of the supernatural, for those who wished the spirits to stay at bay, they developed one of the most iconic Halloween activities. The custom of carving jack o’lanterns began in Ireland and in the Scottish Highlands, where turnips were hollowed out and carved with grotesque faces. These lanterns were used to ward off evil spirits and beings, by setting them on windowsills to keep the harmful spirits away. 

As is fitting for Halloween, these customs and traditions are somewhat uncanny to us now. They are familiar yet different. The festivities underwent many changes when mass immigration from Scotland and Ireland brought Halloween to America. The celtic spirits were replaced with a range of monsters from across the globe. The costumes have become superhero outfits and the turnips have become pumpkins. Yet the celebration has not only survived but flourished, it is a global phenomenon which continues to change and transform to this day.


Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.


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