Today’s the day … ghosties, ghouls, and goblins beware. It’s a delightfully scary, spine-chilling night for youngsters and the young-at-heart alike, but where did it all begin?
People have been celebrating All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) since ancient times, as a time to remember the dead, saints (hallows), and martyrs. It’s thought to have evolved from the Celtic holiday of Samhain, marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, and also seen as a bridge between the living world and the world of the dead. Celebrations included costumes and merriment, using humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.
Traditionally, All Hallows’ Eve was a day to abstain from eating meat. Seasonal dishes like apples, colcannon (potatoes with cabbage and kale), and potato pancakes were served instead. Bobbing for apples, anyone?
During the Middle Ages, homemakers in Britain and Ireland would also cook up batches of “soul cakes,” little cakes they filled with sweet spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger along with raisins or currants, and marked with a cross on the top to denote that they were offered as alms. “Soulers,” mostly children and the poor, would go door-to-door, singing …
A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missis, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us all merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all.
… while saying prayers for the dead. Each little cake they ate represented a soul being freed from Purgatory. Trick or treat!
Along with humorous costumes used to counterbalance the thought of death, a darker side of costuming also came into play. Dead souls were thought to wander the land of the living until All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1), and All Hallows’ Eve was thought to be their last chance to wreak vengeance on anyone who had wronged them in life. So those with a fear of retribution also wore costumes and masks to disguise their identities from the wandering spirits. Jack-o’-lanterns (carved pumpkins with candles inside to illuminate their scary faces) were carried to frighten the evil spirits away.
Whether you’re 9 or 90, a souler or a baker, a trickster or a purveyor of treats, this is the night to scare away the spirits and have yourself a big dose of costumed merriment.