Halloween! A Hellish History

Every Halloween when the shadows fall and the moon becomes sovereign, the boundary separating the dead from the living becomes blurred, and all manner of terrible sprites and spirits stalk the land in service of mischief, mayhem, and the delirious whims of the midnight hour.

Or at least they supposedly did in Halloweens of yore before this ancient calendar date was hijacked by crass commercialism, cheap gimmicks, novelty masks, and a sinister abundance of pumpkins.

The poet John Keats, who was born on Halloween, once famously described autumn as a, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” which conjures up succinctly the season’s twilight and otherworldly nature that reaches its zenith on October 31 after summer’s vibrant hues of green bloom have turned into shades more reminiscent of blood and sunsets.

Yet, although we now live in an age where technology has forced the witch from her broomstick and the man from the moon, where the darkest corners can be illuminated by the dull practicality of electric light, and the deepest mysteries discarded by modern cynicism, the deep rooted traditions and customs of Halloween still hold sway in one guise or another.

Suggesting perhaps that in the sterile cauldron of modernity, people long now more than ever for the “unholy” trinity of myth, magic, and mystery. The ancient Celts were responsible for Halloween, only they called it Samhain.

On Samhain is was believed the veil separating this world from the next was pulled back to allow the spirits to once again roam the Earth.

Far from being afraid of accidentally bumping into the ghosts of their long buried relatives, the Celts relished the opportunity to catch up and have a chat with the souls of the dead on what they also referred to as “Ancestor night” in the hope of getting some good, solid guidance for the year ahead.

The Celts would also place their ancestors’ skulls outside their home to ward off evil spirits, and this is where the tradition of pumpkins comes from. Of course, the Catholic church was having none of this mixing with the dead malarky and in a bid to quash Samhain, they made November 1 All Saints’ or All Hallows’ Day as it is sometimes known.


Hence, Samhain became known as All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween, a time where the early Christians believed souls were released from purgatory and allowed to roam the world for a couple of days until they got bored or were forced back to whence they came.

Dressing up in bizarre costumes on Halloween in nothing new either. The Celts were yet again a step ahead of us. Only the Celts didn’t do it for fun or to outdo one another in the fancy dress stakes, but in a serious bid to trick the spirits into thinking they too were one of the dead so they would be left alone.

In Ireland, they still make the most of Halloween by holding onto the tradition of making the last Monday of October a public holiday.

As a result, Ireland is the only country where children never go to school on Halloween and are therefore free to celebrate it in an ancient and time-honored fashion – albeit without the talking with the dead people element.

The custom of trick-or-treating is a direct descendant of the European custom of souling, which would involve beggars walking from village to village begging for “soul cakes,” whilst promising people they would say prayers on behalf of dead relatives to help the soul’s passage to Heaven.

The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the Celtic practice of putting on a nice buffet of food and wine for roaming spirits to tuck into on Samhain. The mingling of Christian and Pagan traditions in the development of Halloween, and its assumed preoccupation with evil and the supernatural, have left some modern Christians uncertain of how they should react towards the holiday.

Other Christians hold the view that the holiday is not satanic in origin or practice and teaches children a valuable life lesson about death and morality.

In the words of the late senior exorcist of Vatican City, Father Gabriele Amorth, “If British and American children like to dress up as witches and devils on one night of the year, that is not a problem.”


[Featured Image by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]