Halloween: Origins and Folklore

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

With Halloween less than a week away, now is the perfect time to explore the frightening folklore and terrifying traditions that makes this wonderfully weird night the best one of the year. 

So grab hold of my October kite and call me Mr Moundshroud, we’re going on an adventure.

Photo by Toni Cuenca on Pexels.com

Halloween and Samhain 

October 31st to November 2nd is a special set of days across cultures old and new, but the modern festival commonly known as Halloween can trace its roots back to ancient Gaelic Pagan festivities, celebrating the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.

This festival was, known as Samhain – and, it is still known as such to my fellow witches and pagans. Along with the other seasonal festivities – Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltaine, Litha, Lughnasa (or Lammas) and Mabon- it makes up one eighth of the wheel of the year.

Samhain was considered the time the boundary between this and the Otherworld was at its thinnest, meaning that spirits and fae folk could come and go more freely. Samhain became closely related to the honouring of the dead – reflecting the dying of the trees and winding down of the natural cycles, something that can be seen scross cultures in the Northern Hemispheres.

As is often the way, the spread of Christianity saw the assimilation of pagan traditions, and Samhain became All Hallow’s Eve – The evening before All Hallows’ Day, a day of feasts and commemoration not the Christian saints and martyrs. Also known as Feast of Saints or Hallowmas, it is celebrated across Easter and Western Christian communities.

Similarly, the Mexican Día de Muertos, became a separate but similar festival of its own, combining the cultural festivals with a Catholic calendar. 

An Example of a Vintage Halloween Costume

Costumes and Trick or Treating

What would Halloween be without legions of children in gaudy costumes going door to door to threaten residents into giving them sweet treats?

Halloween costumes – the lifeline of fancy dress companies worldwide – have been around in one form or another for centuries. These days, you may see the likes of superheroes, animals or sexy variants, but back in the day it was horror all the way. These may have represented the ghosts and ghouls that wandered the streets during Halloween night, but some believed it was necessary to be in disguise so these spirits wouldn’t recognise the living.

The practice known as “trick or treating” can actually be traced back to the Middle Ages, and the British tradition of “mumming” and “souling”.

“Mumming” or “guising” involved costumed groups going door-to-door on certain holidays, and acting to songs and short play scenes in exchange for food and drink. Souling was the similarly related practice of Christian soulless going door to door and begging the rick for soul cakes I exchange for prayers.

Our lovely skeletal horse, Meri Lywd, is another localised example of this, as are Christmas Carollers and the more obscure “penny for the Guy” tradition, where kids built their own effigy to the man who planned to blow up the UK parliament, Guy Fawkes, and knocked on doors asking for pennies to enjoy Bonfire Night, when the effigy would be burnt. This practice faded when fireworks became readily available for children to get their sticky little hands on. It probably also had something about this particular tradition encouraging violent, but whatever. 

Truly Terrifying Vintage Halloween Children

The Jack- O’-Lantern

Although the practice of carving vegetables can been seen worldwide – usually for garnishing food – we have the Irish to thank for the practice of carving jack-o’-lanterns. It was thought that the lantern represented faces of monsters and spirits and were set on windowsills to ward off evil.

There are a few variants of the Jack-o-Lantern’s origin story, but my personal favourite comes from the Irish folk tale of Stingy Jack.

Jack was a bit of a rapscallion throughout his life, and when his time came, the Devil came to take his soul. Jack asked if he could take an apple for the journey, and the Devil, being a kind sort of chap, climbed an apple tree to fetch one. However, when in the tree, Jack placed several crossed one the ground around it, trapping the Devil in its branches. The Devil begged to be released, and eventually Jack let him go under the condition that he never take his soul. With no other choice, the Devil agreed. 

When the time eventually came for Jack to die, he tried to enter Heaven, but was stopped due to the fact that an angel had previously banned him from heaven after granting Jack three wishes which he used to punish others.

So, Jack went down to Hell, but the Devil would not let him in either – still sore about the tree incident, as well as a previous run in where, after a night of heavy drinking, the Devil turned into a coin to pay their tab and Jack trapped him in his wallet with a crucifix. As such, Jack was give the boot, but the Devil, being a rather decent fellow by the seems of it, gave Jack an ember to light his way as we wandered purgatory.

Jack carved a lantern out of a turnip and became known as Jack-of-the-lantern.

Quite how the turnip became the pumpkin, I’m unsure, but one thing is for certain – never, ever piss of a celestial being, because you may end up in a folktale.

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