The Real Story of Halloween

A ‘Samhain’ Celebration in England (Source:

By Erin Harris

Halloween is just around the corner and now is the perfect time to learn exactly where this hugely popular holiday actually came from. It is thought that Halloween first came into existence roughly 2,000 years ago as a Celtic (Ireland, UK and France) tradition known as ‘Samhain’, to usher in the New Year that commenced on the 1st of November. It was on this particular night that it was believed the worlds of the living and the dead began to blur and boundaries between the two became weak and superfluous; the dead walked with the living as it were. Although this supernatural occurrence was initially believed to cause harm to crops and harvests, it was also thought by many that this blurring of worlds meant the pagan druids of the time could make much more accurate prophecies about the upcoming year; a fundamental belief for Celtic society. It is believed that early Britons celebrated this night by dressing in animal skins and heads, whilst also making ritualistic sacrifices on huge bonfires.

When the Romans later invaded Britain this tradition was merged with the Roman holiday of Feralia as a day to specifically remember and celebrate the dead, and later when the spread of Christianity was properly established a further celebration called All Hallows day was added to the mix. With both these festivities people frequently dressed in costumes or as devils and angels, but they had a much more disturbing reasoning for doing this rather than just for fun. For example, early Britons would on Halloween night wear a mask when leaving the house so that any lingering spirits would mistake them as kin and hence leave them alone. Following this reasoning, people are also said to have left bowls of food outside their house to also appease any wandering spirits and to prevent anything nasty or supernatural befalling them. Furthermore the idea of trick or treating is believed to be derived from an old practise in England where on All Souls day the poor of society would beg from affluent family’s for food or money, in return for them praying for the family’s dead loved ones. (This linking back to the religious idea that by praying your loved ones could get out of purgatory and to heaven quicker). As a consequence of various interpretations and external factors, it is clear to see where modern day ideas of Halloween costumes and the notion of trick or treating came from, albeit with slightly more sinister roots. And so over time this melting pot of different traditions, beliefs and cultures became what we now know and love as Halloween.

Day of the Dead Celebrations (Source:

So remember this weekend when you are dressing up as Harley Quinn or as the Joker and ordering a gravedigger cocktail, you are really just perpetrating 2,000 years of history and culture…Go figure!

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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