The rites, rituals and origins of Halloween

Ever wonder why we dress up and knock on people’s door for candy every year? Clifford Williamson, Senior History Lecturer has delved into the different traditions and origins of Halloween...

We are approaching All Hallow’s Eve, the day when all the spirits and ghosts are in their element and traditionally people sought to ward off malevolent influences by placing lanterns made of turnips in doorways and windows. Children would disguise themselves as goblins and imps and go ‘souling’ from door-to-door – singing songs or reciting prayers for the dead in return for soul cakes or other rewards.

At Bath Spa University we are very aware of all of this, as we have long had a strong interest in the study of religion and various ways that beliefs manifest themselves and shape our communities. As a historian I have always been fascinated by religion and how it has evolved and Halloween is a brilliant example of this.

The origins of Halloween

There are two significant schools of thought about the emergence of Halloween. For some it is a Christian rebranding of the Celtic festival of Samhain which is pronounced "sow-in". Samhain was a commemoration of the end of summer, "when summer goes to rest" as it was characterized, as people prepared for the long winter. It was also regarded as a time of year when fairies and other spirits were at their most active and the boundaries between the temporal and supernatural world were at their most narrow. The festival, it was argued, was incorporated into the Christian calendar to ease the transition from forms of paganism to Christianity as the dominant religious orthodoxy.

However the second school of thought on the emergence of Halloween is to emphasize the uniquely Western Christian character of the festival and its relationship with two key dates in the calendar:

  • All Saints' Day where all of the leading fathers and teachers of the church are venerated and
  • All Souls' Day where special prayers and masses were said for all of those who had recently departed to speed their journey through purgatory.

These days were set for the first and second of November, which happened to coincide with Samhain. As time went by elements from the Celtic legend began to merge with Christian holy days in much the same way that Easter and Christmas have.

The rituals and their evolution

Today we are familiar with the paraphernalia of Halloween: children dressing up in fancy dress going door to door and being gifted sweets and treats. But how has it come to this?

The tradition of children going around a locality dressed up carrying jack-o-lanterns and collecting treats is very old, in fact dating back in some parts of the UK to the middle ages. It takes a number of forms. Souling, as previously mentioned, which was popular in the North of England. In Ireland, and especially in Northern Ireland there is "rhyming", which is done for several nights or even weeks before Halloween – but not on Halloween night. In Scotland, where I hail from, there is "guising" which shares many of the same features as souling and as it has evolved now entails still going door-to-door, but you do not automatically get treats and have to do a party piece – often a song, a dance or tell a joke. Also, it is common to get money as well as sweets.

Here in Somerset, most notably in the village of Hinton St. George, there is "Punkie Night" where on the last Thursday in October children visit local homes and do their own form of guising.

Punkie Night (BBC, Sara Hannant)

However, the modern Halloween is an interesting example of cultural exchange and return. According to Nicholas Rogers, who has written one of the most important studies of the history and role of the festival, it was Irish and Scottish migrants who took the tradition of rhyming, souling and guising and transplanted it in the USA where by the middle of the last century it had become a major festival with all the ingredients we know today  pumpkin carving, trick or treating, and the commercial aspects of the festival. It is estimated that we will spend around £400 million this year on the festival.

A Celebration of neighbourhood and community

For Nicholas Rogers, Halloween has become a space "for social transgression and parody" at a time when leisure has become so routinized and commercial. It has also become not just a festival for children, but more recently for adults too, as many of our students will attest. It is about our community and greeting neighbours. It is a reminder of our shared cultural history and of the passing of the seasons.

And with that in mind, don’t forget to turn your clocks back on Sunday.

Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.



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