The Origins and Meaning of Halloween

When most people think of Halloween, they immediately associate it with ghosts, witches, zombies, vampires and spooky things that only come out at night. Kids look forward to “trick-or-treating” going door to door and recieving gifts of sweets and candy and carrying pumpkin jack-o-lanterns.

But why exactly do we celebrate Halloween and what is the meaning of all these strange traditions?

History of Halloween

The word “Halloween” dates from about 1745 and comes from “All Hallows Eve”, a Christian festival held on the 31st of October to remember the dead. It also has Pagan influences and many associate it with Samhain, the Gaelic festival that celebrates the start of winter. It was thought that at this time of year, it was easier for spirits and fairies to pass through into our world. Many of the customs that we associate with Halloween were originally carried out for Samhain.

Trick-or-Treating

Trick-or-treating seems to have evolved from the practice of “guising”, a practice that started in the 16th century in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man. People would go from house to house in disguise and sing songs in exchange for food.

In scotland it was traditional for youths to go to each house wearing masks or blackened faces and threaten to do mischief of some kind if they were not welcomed.

Jack-o-Lanterns

The custom of wearing costumes and playing pranks spread to England in the 20th century and this is when Jack-o-Laterns appeared. These pranksters would light their way with a turnip hollowed out to act as a lantern and often carved with goulish faces.

The use of pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns is actually quite a modern invention after the tradition was brought to American, where pumpikns are more common at that time of year than turnips. In fact turnips were used traditionally in the UK until very recently – when I went trick-or-treating as a child, we always used turnips and the smell of burned turnip and candle wax is one I will always associate with Halloween!

As with many things, the UK has now taken a more American style approach to Halloween and it’s rare that you’ll see a turnip jack-o-lantern on the streets these days. Pumpkins do grow much larger, allowing for more impressive Halloween decorations and they’re much easier to carve.

Bobbing for apples

Apple bobbing is one of the oldest Halloween games and dates back to the Roman invasion of Britain. Apples were introduced at this time and along with them, the game of bobbing for apples, originally as a game for young people to determine which of them would marry first.

Apples would be floated in a barrel of water and the participants would try to take a bite from an apple with their hands tied behind their back. It was said that the first person to bite the apple would be the next one to marry. Apples have long been associated with fertility and marriage since the story of Adam and Eve in the bible.

As it became traditional to partake in feasting and games after the prayers for deceased souls on All Hallows Eve, the two customs merged and bobbing for apples became a popular Halloween activity.

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