Why do we celebrate Halloween? Origins and meanings of the spooky tradition

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  • Why do we celebrate Halloween? Ghouls and ghosts are the stuff of nightmares on every other day of the year, so the tradition of welcoming these creepy creatures does seem a little odd when you think about it. 

    But there’s no doubt that Halloween is one of the nation’s favourite celebrations of the year! With so many great Halloween movies for adults and kids, delicious Halloween foods stocked on the shelves of supermarkets and fun Halloween crafts to get stuck into, it’s one of the most exciting events to happen before Christmas.

    So whether you’re prepping for the big day already and thinking through Halloween costume ideas, or just curious to know about the tradition around this haunted holiday, this is what you need to know.

    Why do we celebrate Halloween?

    We celebrate Halloween because it’s a long tradition in the UK, going back to Celtic times over 2000 years ago.

    During the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, the Celts celebrated their new year on November 1. This wintery day signalled the end of summer, the end of the harvest and the beginning of the cold and dark winter, a time that they often associated with death. The Celts believed that on the eve of this day, Samhain then and October 31 now, the boundary between the living and dead worlds opened up and ghosts returned to earth.

    Later in the eighth century, in a bid to remove pagan religion from the country, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a day to honour all the saints and martyrs of Christianity. Known as All Souls’ Day, people celebrated in a way that was very similar to Samhain. There were huge bonfires, costumes and allusions to angels, devils and saints. The celebration was also called All Hallows’ Day and the night before it was called All Hallows Eve – which is where the word ‘Halloween’ comes from.

    In the modern day, we follow a lot of the spooky traditions associated with Halloween such as wearing costumes, carving pumpkins, and enjoying tasty food. In the UK it’s become popular to have parties to celebrate this event, which is a great opportunity to get together for fun and Halloween games.

    People celebrate Halloween all over the world, with many cultures having their own take on the spooky time of year. For example, in Mexico, they have an annual The Day of the Dead (el Día de los Muertos) festival which runs between October 31st – November 2nd. During this celebration, Mexican families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a reunion that includes food, drink and celebration.

    The Kawasaki Halloween parade

    The Kawasaki Halloween parade in Japan attracts thousands of people, Credit: Getty.

    Meanwhile, in Japan, there’s a large parade for those wanting to celebrate Halloween. The most famous one is Kawasaki Halloween Parade, which has a different theme each year to encourage others to dress up. There’s even a reward for the best costume! For Japanese people, the costume is arguably the biggest part of their Halloween celebrations.

    And in the Czech Republic, people place chairs by the fireside on Halloween night. There is one chair for each living family member and one for each family member’s spirit, and this is their way of honouring the deceased during the Halloween period.

    What is the true meaning of Halloween?

    While it doesn’t have much of a religious significance in the UK anymore, Halloween was once the symbol of the end of summer and an important day in the pagan calendar.

    It was also the Feast of the Dead. This might sound scary but death wasn’t feared by the pagans. They accepted it as just another part of life and used the occasion to respect and honour the dead. During celebrations, spirits of the recently departed are invited to take part in the feast. There’s also dressing up, dancing and bonfires.

    In addition to this, Samhain was a way to welcome the harvest in the ‘darker time of the year’, and could be similar to the harvest festivals we’re familiar with today.

    Halloween

    Credit: Getty

    Is Halloween a religious celebration?

    In Christianity, Halloween is All Hallows’ Eve. It’s the day before All Hallows’ Day, which is otherwise called All Saints’ – or All Souls’ – Day. The name derives from the Old English ‘hallowed’ meaning holy or sanctified. This is where we got the modern day name of ‘Halloween’ from.

    The Western Church now observes All Saints’ Day on 1st November, after Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel to all the saints in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in the 8th Century. Traditionally, the Church held a vigil on All Hallows’ Eve where worshippers would prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to the feast day itself.

    Halloween costumes

    Credit: Getty

    Why do we wear Halloween costumes?

    Samhain inspired Halloween costumes, as dressing up was a key part of the festivities for pagans. Traditionally, Celts would dress as animals and monsters so that fairies didn’t kidnap them. The Celts believed the barriers between worlds broke during the celebration.

    People also used masks and costumes to trick spirits into thinking that they were one of them. They were also a form of protection so people could enjoy the festival without fear. In modern times, we have plenty of great costumes to choose from.

    Some people choose to go as iconic horror characters, others go as pagan symbols like cats, witches and monsters. And of course there’s no reason expectant mums can miss out on the fun either, thanks to some pregnant Halloween costume ideas. It’s a great time of year to get creative and think about what you want to go as!

    Why do we go trick or treating?

    Trick or Treat might be a strange concept, but it was very common for children to do this during Samhain. Trick or treating evolved from a ritual where people dressed in spooky costumes, performed dances and received treats to appease the evil spirits.

    By the time Christianity had spread into Britain, a new practice had developed. During this time, poor people would visit the houses of the rich and receive pastries called soul cakes, in exchange for promises to pray for the homeowners’ dead relatives.

    In Scotland and Ireland, young people would visit houses and sing, recite a poem or perform another sort of ‘trick’ before receiving a treat of nuts, fruit or sometimes coins. This is likely where the term ‘trick or treating’ came from, as we know it in the modern day.

    Pumpkin carving, one of the big Halloween holiday traditions

    Credit: Getty

    Why do we carve pumpkins?

    Pumpkins are arguably the most iconic symbol of Halloween, but why did we start carving them? It originates from an Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack, who tricked the Devil for his own monetary gain. When Jack died, he couldn’t get in to either Heaven and Hell so had to roam the Earth for all eternity.

    Jack’s wandering soul scared people, so they’d carve scary faces into turnips to scare him away. When Irish immigrants moved to the US, they started to use pumpkins instead as they grow naturally there. The story of Stingy Jack is why Americans often call carved pumpkins Jack o’Lanterns.