The story of Halloween goes back over 2000 years to the ancient Celts. Druidic priests regarded the day as the end of the year. Not only was it their day for celebrating the year’s harvest, but October 31 itself was also the day of Samhain, a festival for honouring the dead. In order to appease the wandering spirits they believed roamed at night, the Celtic priests made fires in which they burned sacrifices, made charms, and cast spells.
Portions of the Celtic holiday of the dead eventually passed into Christian culture after the Romans conquered the Celts and tried to bring the Celts into the Christian fold. It eventually became apparent to the church leaders that the Celts, in spite of their conformation to some aspects of Christian culture, were stubbornly sticking with elements of their old religion.
So, in the seventh century AD, the Church moved its All Saints’ Day, a holiday for honouring early Christian martyrs, from a day in May to November 1, thus associating it with the old Druid death rituals of October 31. By the tenth century A.D., the Church had added a new holiday, All Souls’ Day (November 2). This day was set aside to honour all of the dead, not just the early Christian Saints. Later, October 31st was incorporated into the Christian calendar as All Hallow’s Eve. “Hallow” in Old English means “holy” or “sacred” (as in the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed by Thy Name”). “Hallow’s Eve” or “Halloween” simply means the “evening of holy persons” and refers to the evening before All Saints Day.
The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On 2nd November, All Souls’ Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. Souling is closely related to the mumming custom in Newfoundland.
Finally, there is the Irish legend of the Jack-o-lantern. As the tale is told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree. According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.
There is some controversy amongst Christians concerning Halloween. Some say it is simply a pagan festival or, indeed, a celebration of darker forces. As Christians, however, we must remember that on October 31 – regardless of the folklore – we are really celebrating the eve of the Feast of All Saints.