All About Halloween

Every child knows Halloween as a holiday where they get to dress up as their favorite people, characters or things and go around and collect candy from the neighborhood.  I remember as a child it was always one of my favorite holidays, fantastical and sometimes a little crazy.  How often as a child, however, do you remember thinking, “How did trick or treating start?  Why do we dress up?”  My guess is probably never.  It is, however, exactly the type of thing that we think of here at Atmospheric Noise.

In truth, the origins of Halloween are very muddled.  It has ties to Western European harvest festivals, pagan rituals, Christian feasts, among others.  The term “Halloween” dates back to about 1745, coming from “All Hallows’ Eve,” which has a past in and of itself!   Many of today’s Halloween customs have been influenced by Celtic customs and beliefs, some from pagan beliefs and others from Celtic Christianity.  There are many holidays toward the end of the year that celebrate the harvests, and also the coming of winter.  Samhain, for example, is seen as a time when the spirits or fairies are able to come into our world more readily and are even more active than normal.  Feasts forSamhain are often held where the souls of the dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place was set for them at the table, as people believed the dead could revisit their families on these nights. 

In Scottish and Irish culture, guising (or dressing up) can be traced back to at least the 18th century, where people would dress up and go door to door and sing songs or recite poems in exchange for food. A similar practice can be seen in Christianity for All Souls’ Day or All Saints day, called souling.  On this holiday, people would bake small cakes (called souls) and hand them out to children and the poor who came door to door.  Traditional “souling” songs would be sung, such as:

A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!

An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,

Any good thing to make us all merry.

One for Peter, two for Paul

Three for Him who made us all.

In southern Ireland, guisers would follow a man dressed as a Láir Bhán (a white mare), who would lead them house to house collecting food.  In return for the food, the households would receive good fortune from the Muck Olla (the god of the dead in Celtic culture).  There are even more instances of an early form of trick or treating throughout different cultures, partially due to a mostly universal belief that the veil between worlds was thin on this night and spirits could be warded off by human wanderers.

Even Jack-o-Lantern’s have a place in history, having started out being a primitive sort of lighting for guisers carved out of turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins, and filled with a candle to light the way.  They were very common in Ireland and Scottish culture, but can be found in almost every society.

As you can tell, the history of Halloween is as much a mixing pot from history as our society is as a whole!