A history of Halloween: facing our own mortality at the heart of the celebration

While many Brits fear death, others remain open to conversations about afterlife.

People are constantly being bombarded with the notion of death through television and movies – such as Squid Games and American Horror Story.

But while many can easily speak about death in these scenarios, they can become uncomfortable when the topic turns to something more ‘serious’.

However, on Halloween, many people push their fears of death aside to celebrate the occasion by dressing up in spooky costumes and decorating their homes with ghosts.

Originally Halloween was a uniquely American holiday, coming hand-in-hand with a day in which actively engages with death at the heart of the celebration.

Various cultures, religions and historical events have contributed to the traditions of Halloween.

Most notable are the Roman festival of Pomona, the church appointed observances of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day and the Celtic festival of Samhain.

The Samhain influence
Samhain commenced at sundown on October 31 and was treated as the ‘summer’s end’, it was the end of harvest season, a time of decreased daylight, the beginning of winter and approaching the end of the year.

These harsh conditions brought with them the concerns of death, survival and the necessity of having to face one’s own mortality as many would not survive the season.

During the daylight hours, it was traditional practice to pay off debts, complete any final harvesting tasks and hold legal trials.

The extinguishing of the fires was one of the most important rituals on Samhain Eve. as Druids (the dedicated priests) would create a large communal fire.

Bonfires were later observed during All Souls’ Day, believed to serve as a guiding light for souls in Purgatory who were thought to have returned to their ancestral homes for the night.

There are also examples of folktales believed to date from this period that take place on Samhain. These are full of corpses and giants demanding gifts of crops and children – scary stuff.

Jack O’ Lantern originated around this time with the Irish folktale of ‘Stingy Jack’ who was thought to be able to trick the devil in a multitude of bad bargains.

Spirits of the dead were believed to be nearby during this period and so it was deemed an ideal time to call upon them for help in answering questions about the future. Therefore, later incarnations of Samhain and early Halloween practices were often full of fortune-telling.

Premonitions were supposedly common during Samhain with apparitions of people still living, who were expected to die within the year. It is said that those hoping to conjure visions of a future spouse also faced the risk of seeing their own corpse, a signal of their impending death.

During this time, food would be left out for the dead and libations poured on graves. Later, as a part of All Souls’ Day, soul cakes would be baked and given to the poor who would in exchange then pray for the dead.

In Brittany, France, cemeteries served as the centre of the community and people believed that corpses rose from their graves during the Samhain night, the skeletons filling the pews to hear death deliver a sermon.

The Celts’ relationship with their own mortality and death was evidently of significant importance and it’s interesting to see how this has transpired throughout the decades and transformed into the Halloween that we celebrate today.