The History of Halloween

Celtic cross

Did you know that the now-popular Halloween festival is actually over 2,000 years old? The Celts, who lived in Ireland, the UK and northern France used to celebrate their new year on November 1st . The last day of October marked the end of summer and the beginning of the cold, dark winters, a time which often brought death to families through illness. People believed that the boundary between the living and the dead became blurred on the night before the 1st of November. On this night, they believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth to cause trouble for the living and destroy crops. For this reason, they celebrated what was then called ‘Samhain’, a word that is still used in the Irish language today. Celts thought that the presence of otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids (Celtic priests) to make predictions about the future and so it was common for fortune telling to take place on this night. This was something that people often found to be a comfort during the long, dark winters.

Celebrations also involved huge bonfires, when people would gather to burn crops and animals as a sacrifice to the spirits. This was also when the tradition of wearing costumes started, as people would dress up to ward off the spirits of the dead.

Many years later, in the 8th century, Pope Gregory III decreed that November 1st would be All Saints Day, the day to honour all saints and martyrs. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later became known as Halloween. By the 9th century, when Christianity had started to spread to Celtic lands, the traditions of ‘Samhain’ and Halloween started to blend together.

Over time, Halloween festivities have evolved into the celebrations we know today. Children and adults dress up in ‘scary’ costumes and often hold social gatherings with Halloween games for the children. Children go from door to door saying ‘Trick or Treat’, hoping to receive sweets, chocolates and nuts from the houses they call to. The ‘trick’ is a (normally idle) threat to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given to them. In the UK and Ireland, the tradition of going house-to-house collecting food at Halloween goes back at least as far as the 16th century. In 19th century Britain and Ireland, there are many accounts of people going house-to-house in costume at Halloween, reciting verses in exchange for food, and sometimes warning of misfortune if they were not welcomed. While going house-to-house in costume has remained popular, the custom of saying “trick or treat” has only recently become common.

In Ireland, most households still have a ‘barmbrack’, a special bread that is made for Halloween. Barmbrack is traditionally baked with various objects inside the bread and is still used as a kind of fortune telling game.  In the past, the barmbrack would contain a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin (originally a silver sixpence) and a ring. Depending on the item that a person received in their slice of the bread, there was a different meaning. If the person received the pea, it was believed that they would not marry that year; the stick, they would have an unhappy marriage; the cloth or rag, they would have bad luck or be poor; the coin, they would enjoy good fortune or be rich; and the ring, would be wed within the year. Nowadays, the typical barmbracks still contains a toy ring which signifies marriage in the near future.

So there you have it, Halloween actually started here! Will you celebrate Halloween this year? Wear your costume to school this Friday and give your classmates a scare!!!!

The CEC Halloween Party is on Friday night so come along and ‘get in the spirit’!

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