The word Halloween comes from ‘All Hallows Eve’n,’ Hallows being the archaic word for saint. Over time this was abbreviated to Hallowe’en, which in turn, has been further shortened to Halloween.
The origins of Hallowe’en, are enshrined in legend and myth, Ancient Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain, (Summer’s end) which marked the beginning of a New Year. As the three-day festival heralded the end of the summer season, and the impending season of darkness, it quickly became connected with death and the deceased.
Celts believed that during the long dark nights of winter, evil spirits could prey upon them. Hallowe’en marked the time when the barriers between the human and the spirit worlds were at their weakest. To frighten these evils spirits away, bonfires would be built and communities would gather together to make as much noise and merriment as possible, dancing around these great fires.
With the advent of Christianity, the dates of the festival were formalised, along with the focus for celebration. November the first became ‘All Souls Day,’ where prayers were given for the souls of the dead, whilst the second of November was declared to be ‘All Saints Day,’ a day for honouring the many Saints and Martyrs. Church bells would be rung every hour throughout these two days; to mark the time for prayers.
From the 16th Century onwards it was believed that on ‘All Hallows Eve’n,’ the heat and light from the bonfires, would bring comfort to those poor souls who were languishing in purgatory. Holding up burning pieces of straw and offering up prayers, would help these unfortunate souls find peace and ease their route to heaven.
In a time where it was believed that the dead could be aided on their way to heaven by prayer; a European custom of ‘Souling,’ became very popular. On All Hallows Eve people travelled from door to door, asking for ‘Soul Cakes,’ in exchange for prayers for the dead.
It could be said that this practise could be seen to form part of today’s custom of trick or treating.
There are however, other possible source for this custom. Such as ‘Mischief Night,’ which falls on the 4th of October, this was traditionally a night when the young men of a district would gather together to play practical jokes on their neighbours.
In reality, the custom of ‘Trick or Treating,’ could be made up from a combination of many age-old rituals; originating from many countries and cultures.
Another belief surrounding Hallowe’en comes with the idea that it is a way of preparing for the forthcoming Christmastide. On All Hallows Eve, all dark spirits and evil is banished, making way for All Souls Day, where the ghosts of lost loved ones come down among us. Closely followed by All Saints Day, where the souls of the Saints come down to purify and spread goodwill for the coming of Christmas.