The origins of the festival
Hallowe’en seems to have grown around the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain, marking the end of the light half of the year and the beginning of the dark half.
Samhain was in part a sort of harvest festival, when the last crops were gathered in for the winter, and livestock killed and stored. But the pagan Celts also believed it was a time when the walls between our world and the next became thin and porous, allowing spirits to pass through.
The practice of wearing spooky costumes may have its roots in that belief: dressing up as a ghost to scare off other ghosts seems to have been the idea.
Where the name comes from
The name Hallowe’en is a shortening of All Hallows’ Even, or All Hallows’ Evening. All Hallows is an old term for All Saints’ Day (Hallow, from the Old English “halig”, or holy, compared with Saint, from the Latin “sanctus”, also meaning holy, or consecrated).
In the original Old English, it was known as Eallra Hālgena aefen.
This comes from a Christian move by Popes Gregory III and Gregory IV to end the pagan Samhain festivals, by moving the feast of All Saints from May to 1 November.
Pumpkins and turnips
The classic Hallowe’en jack-o’-lantern, a carved grinning pumpkin, is both a new and an ancient practice.
Originally, it seems to have come from an old Irish legend of a man called Stingy Jack, a miserly farmer who played a trick on the devil and as punishment was cursed to wander the earth, lighting his way with a candle inside a hollowed-out turnip.
When the tradition moved to America pumpkins were used instead of turnips, as they were both more available and easier to carve.
Trick or Treat
Like wassailing at Christmas, there is a long tradition of giving gifts to the poor on All Saints’ Day, from Ireland to Italy. The idea would be that the beggars would say prayers for the souls of the dead in exchange for food. “Guising”, disguising oneself as a ghoul to fool evil spirits (as mentioned above), also took place.
Whether this directly led to the practice of children dressing up as scarecrows and ghosts and going door-to-door demanding sweets with menaces is unclear. It is possible that the tradition emerged independently in America. The first recorded use of the phrase “trick or treat” stems from 1927.
Trick-or-treating started in earnest in Britain in the 1980s, and was (and remains) viewed with some suspicion. One BBC writer described it as the “Japanese knotweed of festivals”.
While a large number of Christians either enjoy Hallowe’en like everyone else or actively emphasise the Christian aspects of All Saints’ Day, some – notably the Catholic Church – who condemn it as anti-Christian or even Satanic.
This year the Vatican has proclaimed it a celebration of "terror, fear and death" with an “undercurrent of occultism”, to follow a cry by the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire last year that it was a "dangerous celebration of horror and the macabre" which could encourage "pitiless [Satanic] sects without scruples."
Spanish Catholics also feared it could "replace Christian customs like devotion to saints and praying for the dead."
In an interesting twist, members of the tiny Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, plan to burn copies of every English version of the Bible other than the King James translation this Hallowe’en, saying they themselves are Satanic.