top of page

A Little Halloween History

HALLOWEEN This is going to surprise precisely no one, but I love Halloween.

A lot!

I even got engaged on Halloween, I have an anniversary holiday off near a castle in Wales this year, and the upcoming wedding is pencilled in for Halloween 2020 purely because Halloween is both a full moon and a Saturday.

It could be nothing more than a cynical commercial mess designed to shift spooky candy to watch horror movies to, and I would still be on board. Sweet treats and creepy media make up the majority of what I want from life.

But it’s a little bit more than that, I’m very happy to say.

Don’t let the nay sayers get you down, Halloween is a rich tradition. There’s certainly a commoditised ebb and flow about it, but the foundations are there and so what if some mise somewhere is trying to cash in on the party? Everyone still gets to have that party at the end of the day!

At it’s bare bones, Halloween is a holiday originating in Europe that stems from superstitions revolving around the dying days. The nights get longer, the weather gets colder, and times get harder for everyone. It’s not quite the Yule feast where everyone gets together with family in the dead of winter, not knowing if everyone will still be here come the spring, but there’s an element of defiance in the face of an uncaring world to the celebration. The treats are an expression of that, stuffing your face and to hell with the chance of seasonal famine. There’s much less of a chance of going without food and warmth in Europe or the Americas these days, but this holiday has one foot in that.

An ancestral morbidity. Something we don’t experience first hand so much, but culturally there’s a memory of it there.

Samhain, All Hallow’s Eve, and Halloween aren’t all the same thing. Halloween is the modern banner heading for the older festivals, and no doubt the many smaller traditions that got blended together and absorbed by bigger cultures. It’s a little sad, but that’s how the modern world grew. If you have any quirky local traditions that survived? Please do pass them on! They’re precious, and they’re fascinating. Halloween also is something of the mass revival of these traditions. The spooky theme, the tricks and the treats, Jack o Lanterns, dressing up. The name itself appears to be a bastardisation of All Hallow’s Eve, which was the step from which a revival was needed.

All Hallow’s Eve is to the original pagan rites what Christmas is to Yule, It’s the Christian version and to some extent consolidation of those older traditions. Conflating Halloween and All Hallows Eve feels a bit off to me, with All Hallow’s Eve being simply enough the day before All Hallow’s Day. This, or Hallowmas, or All Saints day on November 1st followed by All Souls Day on November the 2nd. All Saints Day is a mostly Catholic tradition with a feast to celebrate every soul that has gone to heaven as well as a time to honour the Saints, then All Souls Day is a day of praying for the spirits of the dead in purgatory. This really isn’t my speciality, and how the Mexican Day of the Dead lines up with All Hallows even less so, but it’s very interesting to at least acknowledge this overlap.

While All Hallows is supposed to be a holy time, it oddly seems to be the origin of trick or treating. Beggers would go door to door during the feasting and Soul Cakes made at this time were shared out.

Samhain is the pagan main event though, if you want to see where we started and how Halloween has been bringing back the less Christian trappings. While there’s a lot of room for regional variants Samhain itself is Gaellic and Celtic, the angry British bits the Romans couldn’t quite finish off, and is held to be the time when the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at it’s thinnest. What I didn’t realise is that Samhain isn’t just the night. It’s both October 31st and continues through to the evening of November the 1st, so if you’re looking to be somewhat more of a traditionalist you should be looking to have a spooky day time too (which is as good a reason to leave the decorations up until the following evening as any). This appears to come from the Celtic idea that a day begins and ends at sunset, so it overlaps with modern understanding of what constitutes a “day” in a slightly unusual way. I’ve also seen Samhain referred to not specifically as the world’s of the living and the dead being close, I’ve seen it referred to as the barrier to the Otherworld being thin. Given that this is Celtic, it could also be referring to the Aos Si and Brennan’s old friends the fair folk, which would certainly explain the hiding your identity part of the festivities. They’ll want to hide to blend in, and you’ll want to hide from them while they do it. So… Have fun trick or treating, I guess. Reality seems more accessible for others than just the dead. It’s connected to the end of the harvest season and the darker half of the year beginning.

This was only supposed to be a small bonus episode, so I want to just quickly defend a maligned part of the holiday. Jack o lanterns! Some people seem to see them as the enemy, American invaders since pumpkins are from the new world. First up, pumpkins are delicious as well as good for you. Second, pumpkins may be a recent edition, but the jack o lantern is not. Jack o lanterns are a neat bit of folklore to ward off anything not so human snooping around, and traditionally they were carved from turnips. Have you ever tried to carve a turnip? The giant squash update is a welcome one. Although traditional turnip jack o lanterns are less art and more primal terror; you can see why assorted ghosts, spirits, and fae pass on them. Go give them a Google!

One thing I really want to emphasise is that the name someone is using for the holiday? It isn’t wrong. You can just call it Halloween, or if you feel a strong connection to an alternative for whatever personal reason you can run with that too. It’s an odd holiday with a pretty broad consensus about what it can entail. Just enjoy some time with friends and the wider community. If older kids come around, spot them some candy, they could be causing far more trouble than scoring a free sugar rush. Try not to be a grouch, especially to the younger kids. Don’t harass the devout trying to observe the holiday their own way, see if they have any Soul Cakes going spare to try. Just enjoy the fun, and be thankful that while it may be commercial at least it’s holding Christmas back from creeping even earlier into stores. And don’t forgot that wildlife love pumpkins! Don’t bin the jack o lanterns, go drop them off at a local park or bit of woodland where the local critters can bulk up ahead of the winter.

I may do another Halloween special next year. Most of this is surface level stuff I was already aware of, aside from a little research to make sure I wasn’t mixing up details. There’s plenty of traditions to dig into, and I am nowhere near an authority on the Day of the Dead so could go talk to people who are in the know and relay some thoughts on that.

For now though, have a Happy Halloween and try not to get too sick on candy! You can find us on social media, either myself specifically or The Ghost Story Guys show itself, and the show email is I absolutely mean it when I say I want to hear any unusual traditions you may have for Halloween! Goodbye for now, the regular Lukelore should be resuming going forward.


bottom of page