The Month-Long Halloween Extravaganza! Halloween, A (Somewhat Brief) History

Welcome to the official start of the Month-Long Halloween Extravaganza!


The theme for this week is “Halloween Traditions”, so today I’m focusing on the development of the beloved spooky holiday.  It has a rather fascinating history, and has evolved quite a bit from the original holidays.  Today, of course, children dress up and beg candy from their neighbors, and adults host elaborate parties celebrating this spookiest of holidays, but what happened in the past?


Long before Halloween was ever casually celebrated by cute costumes and candy, the Celts celebrated Samhain on November 1st.


Did you know?

Samhain is pronounced sow-un.  And here I thought that it was pronounced phonetically! Gaelic sure is hard for a native English speaker. . . .  (Pronunciation is from multiple sources, confirmed in the Oxford English Dictionary.)


(Photo credit: CPSutcliffe)


Samhain was the Celtic New Year, and it was believed that the veil between the human and spirit worlds was thin, so ghosts could return to Earth.  On this day, bonfires were lit and Druids made prophecies about the coming year, and people wore costumes during the celebrations.  It’s a fascinating holiday, but I won’t go into too much detail here as I believe Koko will be doing a whole post dedicated to Samhain (and other things. . . muahaha) on Friday.  Keep an eye out for it~


After the Romans conquered the Celtic territory, Samhain was combined with two Roman holidays.  One was Feralia, the ninth and final day of the Parentalia, which was a festival to honor the dead (hmm, I think I know why they combined them. . . 😉 ); the other was a day to honor Pomona, goddess of orchards and gardens.  Pomona’s symbol was the apple. . . maybe that’s where our bobbing-for-apples game comes from?


Pomona (Photo credit: sammydavisdog)


Fast-forward a few hundred years, and the Roman Catholics have declared November 1st All-hallows (which is Middle English for All Saints Day) and November 2nd All Souls Day.  The two holidays honor the saints and the souls of the departed who hadn’t yet reached Heaven, respectively.  It would have been counter-productive to have a pagan holiday right before their own holiday, so October 31st was declared All Hallow’s Eve.


So that explains the name of the holiday, but what about the trick-or-treating tradition?  For this, we’ll have to look at a tradition that evolved around All Souls Day.


Fun fact

Guising is another word for trick-or-treating.  It means “the custom of disguising oneself in fancy dress. . . and going to people’s houses, esp at Halloween” and is mostly used in Northern England and Scotland (from the Collins Dictionary).  I’ve also heard of the term “a-souling” being used–though in a very specific way, as you’ll soon see.  Why don’t you try using “guising” this Halloween?


"I simply adore guising!" (from fanpop)
“I simply adore guising!” (from fanpop)


As All Souls Day was dedicated to the dead who hadn’t yet entered Heaven, a custom developed around praying for the poor souls.  People, usually beggars, would go a-souling by going to a house and offering to pray for the family’s dead in return for food.  This food sometimes took the form of soul cakes made especially for the day.  Mummers were also paid in soul cakes, but instead of prayers, they were dressed in costumed and offered entertainment.


Soul cakes for Samhain!
Soul cakes! (Photo credit: Cy-V)


By the way. . .

I’ve heard that soul cakes actually first appeared at Samhain celebrations and were recycled for the Catholic holiday.  They sound delicious, either way. . . . If you’re interested in making soul cakes, there are multiple recipes, but this one on NPR looks particularly good. (Recipe also linked in the Works Cited section at the end of this post.) And while we’re on the subject, what sort of treats are you going to give out this year?


Over time, Halloween made its way from Europe to America, and by the 1930’s, trick-or-treating had spread.  While there’s little evidence that trick-or-treating is related to going a-souling, there are similarities between the two, including the costumes (though beggars never wore costumes, mummers did) and the treats.  The tricks, though, are unique to the trick-or-treating tradition.


Trick-Or-Treat! (Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik)


The tricks

The phrase “trick or treat” basically means that the costumed kids will perform a trick on the homeowner if he or she doesn’t produce a treat.  These tricks aren’t the type that dogs perform!  Think minor mischief instead (though I suppose there will always be those who take it too far, hmm?).  I was never able to think of a trick for Halloween, and always disappointed a neighbor who would always ask, “So what’s the trick this year?”  😕  Do you have a favorite trick?


There is, of course, much more to Halloween than this brief history can cover, including parties and decorations, costumes (in detail :D), and the ever-popular Jack-o-Lanterns!


Halloween icon
Jack-o-Lantern! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Speaking of which, I believe that Jack-o-Lanterns are the subject of the next post in the Month-Long Halloween Extravaganza!, which will be posted tomorrow on Cloud’s World Of. . . .  Look out for it!  And if you’re looking for another post to read while you’re waiting, may I recommend AshSilverLock’s Drums of Autumn on Fabulous Realms?  While not an official part of the Extravaganza, I find that it is very evocative of the season. . . .




Works Cited (Organized by Subject)


If you’re interested in reading more about Halloween’s varied history, check out the following articles.  They were instrumental in the writing of this post.




Halloween History:






Soul Cakes:


Soul Cakes: Hallowed Offerings for Hungry Ghosts on NPR:





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