Spooky or Sacred? Halloween’s Origins and Old Traditions

By Catherine Salgado on October 23, 2019

Halloween is an ancient holiday—no, I’m not talking about a pagan holiday like the Celtic Samhain. Halloween is a contraction of the Scotch/English “All Hallows’ Eve,” which was the name given to October 31 in reference to the fact that it was the vigil of the Catholic feast of All Saints’ Day. Pope Gregory III established All Saints’ Day on November 1 in the 8th century to commemorate all those souls in Heaven who are not known by name, and Pope Gregory IV then extended the celebration of the feast to the entire Catholic Church. In Europe, as the celebration of All Hallows’ Eve became more widespread, various different cultures began either adapting older, pre-Christian customs (such as from Samhain) to its celebration or they invented new customs.

The celebration of All Souls’ Day on November 2, meant to commemorate the souls in Purgatory (those who do not go to Hell when they die but who must be fully cleansed before they can enter Heaven), meant that a number of traditions relating to death and “spirits” began on All Hallows’ Eve and continued through All Souls’ Day.  In France, for instance, a dance of the dead, with a skeletal Death leading a chain of souls, became a Halloween/All Souls’ tradition.  Meanwhile, in places like Ireland, a custom called “souling” developed.  People would bake “soul cakes” on Halloween and children, sometimes dressed as souls from Purgatory, would go from door to door on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days begging for the cakes in return for praying for the givers’ deceased relatives.  Another tradition in places like Ireland was carrying about a carved gourd or pumpkin with a candle inside.  Does any of that sound familiar?

When immigrants began pouring into the United States of America from Europe, and intermarriage among people of many cultures began, various local traditions blended and took on new forms.  The end result of this was that Halloween traditions which had once been Christian began to become secularized until what resulted was the modern Halloween which bears little resemblance to the original holiday.  “Souling” became trick-or-treating, the carved pumpkins with their processional candles became our modern jack-o-lanterns.  Halloween has also become highly commercialized.  If you are interested, however, in doing some more traditional European/American Halloween practices this year, here are a couple of recommendations!

Bobbing for Apples. This tradition comes from the Romanized version of Samhain.  When the Romans ruled the Celts, the former’s harvest festival Feralia and the latter’s death-related festival Samhain combined.  The name of Pomona, the fertility/harvest goddess honored by Feralia, comes from the Latin word for apple, pomis.  The game of “snap apple” or bobbing for apples therefore developed in England and Ireland in relation to Feralia.  The original game was related to marriage and was played by young couples.  The first young person to get a bite from the apples in the water or hanging from strings would supposedly be the next to marry.  Later, after the Christian Halloween had been established, certain older local customs were added to the feast’s celebration, including bobbing for apples.  This also used to be fairly standard for an American celebration of Halloween.

Jack-o-lanterns. Of course, nearly everyone has these for Halloween, but, if you would like to carve a pumpkin in a more traditional way, just carve a face and put a real candle inside.  Carving images into the pumpkins is a more modern innovation—these pumpkins are called “Jack” because they are supposed to look like human faces!  If you would like to be more creative, try making a scarecrow with the jack-o-lantern as the head.

Telling Ghost Stories.  The History Channel says that this tradition was a part of English settlers’ celebration of autumn festivals going all the way back to colonial days.  A very famous American ghost story, which was even made into a Disney movie starring Bing Crosby (The Adventures of Ichabod Crane and Mr. Toad), is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.

As Halloween speedily approaches, take some time to remember what it originally meant to your ancestors and the role it played in American history.  Understanding the holiday and re-incorporating older traditions can make the celebration of it even more fun–and far more meaningful!

Hi! I am a rising junior at Christendom College double majoring in Classics (Classical Languages) and Theology. I am the eldest child in a family of five kids and was homeschooled all the way up until I went to college. My hobbies include writing novels and articles, reading, knitting, drawing, playing piano and ukulele, and making jewelry. Post graduation, I hope to become a full-time journalist.

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