Today brings with it one of the most-loved and celebrated festivals of the year… Hallowe’en!
I’m sure you’ve got your costume hanging on the wardrobe door and your best spooky makeup lined up and ready to go for this evening’s party, but have you ever stopped to think about where this popular festival comes from? Why do we celebrate Hallowe’en? And why do I keep spelling it with an aggravating extra apostrophe!?
What is Hallowe’en?
Hallowe’en, as you most likely know, is a festival based on the spooky and macabre. Observed on 31st October in many countries worldwide, this holiday allows us to go trick or treating, carve jack-o’-lanterns and host big parties.
But Hallowe’en is much older than its modern interpretations. This festival has a long and colourful history that hasn’t always been linked to things that go bump in the night.
How did Hallowe’en get its name?
You’ll notice that I’m a bit of a purist with my spelling of Hallowe’en. At first glance it looks like I’m chucking in an extra apostrophe to make a hipster statement, but what I’m doing is using the slightly less modern spelling that nods towards the traditional name of All Hallows’ Eve.
Interestingly enough for a festival celebrating the dark and spooky, the word Hallowe’en actually means “hallowed” or “holy evening”. November 1st, the day after Hallowe’en is known as All Saints (or All Hallows’) Day, and is traditionally spent honouring the saints who have achieved direct communication with God.
In some countries, All Hallows’ Day is also believed to be the only day of the year that mortals can have contact with their loved ones that have passed on.
Where did Hallowe’en come from?
The history of Hallowe’en is truly a monster mashup of many different cultures and traditions, and no one is completely sure of its origins. Many believe it is a Christian feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals.
There is also a connection to Celtic Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest season and welcomes in the start of the darker half of the year. It was believed that as the seasons changed from one to the other, fairies and spirits could pass with ease into the mortal world. Souls were believed to visit their old homes during this short period.
Great feasts were held in honour of the dead and guising was undertaken by those celebrating, which involved dressing up and going from door to door often reciting verses in exchange for food. Sound familiar to you?
Five little-known Hallowe’en traditions
During days of yore in Britain a tradition called souling was often observed, whereby tiny “soul cakes” were baked and given out to soulers who would knock on doors, singing and saying prayers for the dead. Each soul cake eaten represented a soul being freed from purgatory.
In Germany there is a tradition of hiding all the knives in the house during Hallowe’en for fear of being harmed by vengeful spirits.
The traditional Hallowe’en cake in Ireland was the barmbrack, which contained various objects baked into the bread and used as a fortune-telling game. Each item was supposed to carry a meaning to the person eating it!
Hallowe’en in Romania is often celebrated in honour of the myth of Dracula.
In China, the festival of Teng Cheih takes the place of Hallowe’en and is celebrated on the fifteen day of the year. Food and water are placed in front of photographs of family members who have departed, while bonfires and lanterns are lit in order to light the paths of the spirits.