The origins of Halloween
This is the first of a two-part series on Halloween by OED Consultant Editor Henry Hitchings.
You can read the article in full, here.
Halloween is an increasingly contentious occasion. Devotees claim that celebrating it is liberating and romantic – an opportunity to dress up and make merry. Yet critics complain that the festival is a glaring example of the perils of forced jollity, an excuse for morbid exhibitionism, a grotesque pageant that has been shamelessly commercialised. Some even regard it as the embodiment of evil.
Turning to the Oxford English Dictionary, we read that Halloween is a shortened form of All-Hallow-Even: ‘In the Old Celtic calendar the year began on 1st November, so that the last evening of October was “old-year’s night”, the night of all the witches, which the Church transformed into the Eve of All Saints.’
Here, in miniature, is the knotty story of Halloween: it is an occasion related to a Christian festival, but it has a pre-Christian significance, coloured by witchy mystique.
The historian Ronald Hutton, discussing assertions typically made about the festival, quotes a leaflet used by the British Pagan Federation to defend it from Christian criticism. Its anonymous author states that for the Celts, ‘on the threshold of the cold barren winter months’, Halloween marked the beginning of the year and was a moment ‘when the gates between this world and the next were open’; it was a time of ‘communion with the spirits of the dead, who, like the wild autumnal winds, were free to roam the earth’. It is also worth noting the author’s belief that Halloween festivities help children ‘come to terms with the unseen and sometimes frightening world of dreams’: ‘It is a time when both adults and children can reach out to touch the realms of myth and imagination’ and should be ‘a time for laughing in the face of adversity’.
This account is worth unpacking. The medieval Celtic feast celebrated on the first of November was Samhain. The quotations included in the OED entry for Samhain allude to its being a harvest festival, and also to ‘the usual games’, libations being presented to the gods of the sea, and other sacrifices. But these are all modern interpretations (the earliest of them dates from 1888), and the truth is that we do not know precisely what was involved in the medieval festivities.
In reviewing the various modern accounts, Hutton explains: ‘There is no evidence that it was connected with the dead, and no proof that it opened the year, but it was certainly a time when supernatural forces were especially to be guarded against or propitiated’. He adds that its importance in the popular imagination was cemented only when reinforced ‘by the imposition upon it of a Christian festival which became primarily one of the dead’.
That Christian festival has been known by several names including All-hallowtide and Hollantide. It consists of All Saints’ Eve (i.e. Halloween), All Saints’ Day (otherwise All Hallows or Hallowmas) and All Souls’ Day. Its place in the religious calendar was established in the eighth century by Pope Gregory III, and in the following century Gregory IV and the Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious reinforced its position, making it a holy day of obligation.
Traditionally, All Saints’ Eve (31st October) has been a vigil, a time for prayer in preparation for the feasts that follow. All Saints’ Day (1st November) is a time to honour the saints, especially those who have no other feast day associated with them; in the OED’s illustrative material it is characterised as a ‘solemn’ and ‘bleak-faced’ occasion. On All Souls’ Day (2nd November) the living pray for the souls of all the departed, and it is an opportunity for charitable acts. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are now not always clearly distinguished and, especially within the Anglican church, the traditions connected with them have merged.
One tradition with a robust history is the custom, on All Souls’ Day, of souling. The OED defines this as ‘the action, practice, or ritual of going about asking for donations of food, etc.’; the accompanying citations mention instances of this in Staffordshire and Cheshire. Elsewhere a citation from Thomas Blount’s Glossographia (1661) refers to Soul-masse-Cakes, which are ‘certain oaten cakes, which some of the wealthier sort of persons in Lancashire use still to give the poor on All-Souls day’. Another, from Henry Swinburne’s Travels in the Two Sicilies (1785), reports that ‘it is a custom here, on All Souls day, to throw open the charnel-houses, lighted up with torches, and decked out with all the flowery pageantry of May-day’.
But more durable than any particular custom is the watchful, anticipatory temper of 31st October. The tone of the Christian vigil on this date was not a radical departure from the tone of the season’s pagan rituals, and a febrile apprehensiveness colours all the date’s observances, whether Christian or not. The sense of its fleeting and ethereal quality has made it a popular occasion for divination. The OED entry for All Hallow Eve contains an extract from George Sinclair’s Satan’s Invisible World Discovered (1685), a very popular collection of accounts of supernatural occurrences: ‘Some young Women … upon Allhallow even goe to bed without speaking to any, … and … see in their sleep, the man that shall be their husband.’
Related to this is the belief that on the last night of October the veil between the living and the dead becomes thin. And some of those who mark the occasion put on fantastic disguises – known since the sixteenth century as guising – to ward off the supernatural, perhaps, or in imitation of it, or even to avoid recognition.