HALLOWEEN: 10 things you didn’t know about Halloween
Every year Halloween provokes controversy and divides opinions: what is the history of Halloween and when was it first celebrated? Why do we trick or treat? Why do we carve pumpkins? Most people see Halloween as just as a bit of harmless fun, while others say it marks an ancient pagan festival – and some evangelical Christians claim it is a celebration of dangerous occult forces. So what are the facts? Folklore expert, Dr David Clarke has written an article for BBC History Extra about the history (and mystery) of Halloween…
1. A religious festival?
Most people believe 31 October is an ancient pagan festival associated with the supernatural. In fact, it has religious connotations – although there is disagreement among historians about when it began. Some say Hallowtide was introduced as All Saints’ Day in the 7th century AD by Pope Boniface IV, while others maintain it was created in the 9th century AD by Christians to commemorate their martyrs and saints.
In medieval Britain, ‘Halloween’ was the eve of the Catholic festival All Saints or All-Hallows (from Old English ‘Holy Man’) on 1 November, and was followed by the feast of All Souls on 2 November.
2. We didn’t always carve pumpkins
The tradition of carving a face on a turnip or swede (and more recently pumpkin), and using these as lanterns, seems to be a relatively modern tradition. On the last Thursday in October, children in the Somerset village of Hinton St George carry lanterns made of mangel-wurzles (a type of root vegetable). The light shines through a design etched on the skin. They are carried around the streets as the children chant: “It’s Punky Night tonight, It’s Punky Night tonight, Give us a candle, give us a light, It’s Punky Night tonight.”
3. We didn’t ‘trick or treat’ in England until the 1970s
Much of the modern supernatural lore surrounding Halloween was invented as recently as the 19th century. Scots and Irish settlers brought the custom of Mischief Night visiting to North America, where it became known as ‘trick or treat’. Until the revival of interest in Halloween during the 1970s, this American tradition was largely unknown in England. The importation of ‘trick or treat’ into parts of England during the 1980s was helped by scenes in American TV programmes and the 1982 film E.T.
4. Halloween wasn’t always about the supernatural
There is no evidence the pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated a festival on 1 November, but the Venerable Bede says the month was known as ‘Blod-monath’ (blood month), when surplus livestock were slaughtered and offered as sacrifices. The truth is there is no written evidence that 31 October was linked to the supernatural in England before the 19th century.
5. Nor was it always scary
The idea of Halloween as a festival of supernatural evil forces is an entirely modern invention. Urban legends about razor blades in apples and cyanide in sweets, hauntings by restless spirits and the use of 31 October as the date of evil or inauspicious events in horror films, reflect modern fears and terrors.