Are the specific customs of Halloween related to pagan beliefs?Since Halloween itself originated in paganism, it is not surprising that its customs are related to pagan belief. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica,
In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic Festival of Samhain was observed on October 31, at the end of summer…. The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, goblins, black cats, fairies and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favorable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes.Halloween symbols, customs, and practices undoubtedly have had a variety of influences upon Western culture throughout history. However, in early American history, Halloween was not celebrated due to America’s strong Christian heritage. It was not widely observed until the twentieth century. Initially, it was practiced only in small Irish Catholic settlements, until thousands of Irish migrated to America during the great potato famine and brought their customs with them. To some degree, our modern Halloween is an Irish holiday with early origins in the Celtic winter festival. Interestingly, in American culture, the rise in popularity of Halloween also coincides roughly with the national rise in spiritism that began in 1848
Where did the tradition of trick-or-treating begin?
There are several ancient practices that point to this tradition. One possibility is from the notion that ancient witches had to steal the materials needed for their festivals. The Druids may have believed that witches held this day to be special, something clearly true for modern witches.
The idea of trick-or-treating is further related to the ghosts of the dead in pagan, and even Catholic, history. For example, among the ancient Druids, “The ghosts that were thought to throng about the houses of the living were greeted with a banquet-laden table. At the end of the feast, masked and costumed villagers representing the souls of the dead paraded to the outskirts of town leading the ghosts away.”
As already noted, Halloween was thought to be a night when mischievous and evil spirits roamed freely. As in modern poltergeist lore, mischievous spirits could play tricks on the living—so it was advantageous to “hide” from them by wearing costumes. Masks and costumes were worn to either scare away the ghosts or to keep from being recognized by them:
In Ireland especially, people thought that ghosts and spirits roamed after dark on Halloween. They lit candles or lanterns to keep the spirits away, and if they had to go outside, they wore costumes and masks to frighten the spirits or to keep from being recognized by these unearthly beings.
Where did Halloween costumes originate?Besides the reasons given above, Halloween masks and costumes were used to hide one’s attendance at pagan festivals or—as in traditional shamanism (mediated by a witch doctor or pagan priest) and other forms of animism—to change the personality of the wearer to allow for communication with the spirit world. Here, costumes could be worn to ward off evil spirits. On the other hand, the costume wearer might use a mask to try to attract and absorb the power of the animal represented by the mask and costume worn. According to this scenario, Halloween costumes may have originated with the Celtic Druid ceremonial participants, who wore animal heads and skins to acquire the strength of a particular animal.
An additional layer of tradition explaining the origin of Halloween costumes comes from the medieval Catholic practice of displaying the relics of saints on All Saints’ Day: “The poorer churches could not afford relics and so instituted a procession with parishioners dressed as the patron saints; the extras dressed as angels or devils and everyone paraded around the churchyard.”
Going from door to door seeking treats may result from the Druidic practice of begging material for the great bonfires. As we will see later, it is also related to the Catholic concept of purgatory and the custom of begging for a “soul cake.”
As for the “trick” custom of Halloween, this is related to the idea that ghosts and witches created mischief on this particular night. For example, if the living did not provide food, or “treats,” for the spirits, then the spirits would “trick” the living. People feared terrible things might happen to them if they did not honor the spirits. The Druids also believed that failure to worship their gods would bring dire consequences. If the gods were not treated properly in ritual, they would seek vengeance. This was therefore a day of fear. Further, some people soon realized that a mischievous sense of humor, or even malevolence, could be camouflaged—that they could perform practical jokes on or do harm to others and blame it on the ghosts or witches roaming about.