Happy Halloween!!! Your London expat blog correspondent here (who happens to be a fanatic of this holiday) interrupts the sequence of our regularly scheduled Weekend Warrior Sunday program on London history to bring you instead an aptly timed brief history of Halloween, which does, incidentally, have strong roots in the UK. [insert wicked cackling and a ghostly wooOOOooo here, perhaps with a dash of wolf-baying here and there…]
The origin of the name “Halloween” derives from the holy day (indeed, where the term “holiday” itself comes from) of All Hallow’s Eve, the evening before the Christian feast of All Saints Day (which in turn precedes All Souls, a day for praying for the dead). The celebration itself, however, is believed to originate from pagan autumn festivals of old, possibly the Roman festival of Pomona (the goddess of seed and fruit) and the Celtic festival of Samhain that partook at harvest time when the Britons also honored their sun-god for the light that yielded their crops. Samhain was a god of death that gathered the last souls of the year, a “New Year’s” of sorts signifying the end of the “lighter” half of the year and the beginning of the “darker.” (The Romans also had a similar festival of the dead called Parentalia).
According to www.catholiceducation.org:
“In Brittany the night was solemn and without a trace of merriment. On their “night of the dead” and for forty-eight hours thereafter, the Bretons believed the poor souls were liberated from Purgatory and were free to visit their old homes. […] Breton families prayed by their beloveds’ graves during the day, attended church for “black vespers” in the evening and in some parishes proceeded thence to the charnel house in the cemetery to pray by the bones of those not yet buried or for whom no room could be found in the cemetery. Here they sang hymns to call on all Christians to pray for the dead and, speaking for the dead, they asked prayers and more prayers. […] During the night a townsman would go about the streets ringing a bell to warn them that it was unwise to roam abroad at the time of returning souls.”
It evolved that All Hallow’s Eve was a day of both prayer and pleasure in England, Scotland, and Ireland, persisting even after Queen Elizabeth I forbade any religious observances related to All Souls Day. Indeed, even trick-or-treating comes from England, where it was a custom for the poor to knock door-to-door with promises to pray for the household’s dead in return for a “soul cake” (shortbread with currants). The tradition of wearing costumes arguably came from the masquerading in charades and pantomimes of medieval morality tales that warned of torment in the afterlife as a result of sin.
As an American living in London—having moved here, in fact, only a month before Halloween—one of the first aspects of British culture I noticed was that there is far less hype over Halloween here than what I knew at home. Irish immigration to North America because of the Potato Famine brought Halloween traditions, and it has since established immense popularity there as a secular more so than religious celebration. This is what American expats in London can miss greatly when living here, but I must say with each year I see more and more decor in shops and advertised parties, so I do believe Halloween in London is turning that fabulously frightful corner, and in no small part due to its expat community—ironically carrying Halloween customs back over to the UK and Ireland from the New World :).