Monday, October 17, 2016

Halloween in the Middle Ages: Combination of the old and new

Many practices of Halloween are based on the so-called pagan religions which date back thousands of years. However, the celebration which we partake in it today has its routes to the old religions, but also the church of the middle ages.

The festival most associated with this time of the year originated with the Samhain or summer’s end, which was a Goidel celebration. This marked the end of the harvest season, when crops had been gathered, and the days beginning to be noticeably shorter. It was observed (our Calendar) around November 1st, it was also a day when the souls of the dead could return back to our realm.

The Celtics had a similar tradition to celebrate when the Lord of the Dead would call the souls of the people who died over the past year to escort them to the afterlife.

Unfortunately, it was not only the souls of friend and relatives, but also terrifying creatures who could penetrate from the other side, into our world.  To combat this, the people put out lanterns to ward off these unwanted spirits and creatures. Later, candles were put into hallowed out turnips.

A Christian story arose about this type of turnip light, which evolved into a Halloween tradition:

One night, a man named Jack, after drinking a lot, came across the devil in a tree. Jack places the sign of the cross on the tree, which prevented the devil from leaving it. The devil begged Jack to remove it, and Jack agreed, only if the Devil promised not to take him to hell when he died.

When Jack died, he was refused entry into heaven for his heavy drinking.  He eventually ends up at the gates of hell, but the Devil keeping his promise, would not let him in.

The Devil feeling some compassion for him, threw a coal from the fires of hell for Jack to light his way.  Jack placed it in a turnip, and holds it in front of his face as he wanders aimlessly looking for a home to spend eternity.  The ghostly image of his face is all you can see of him; you can see how the Jack-o-lantern was invented.

Although, often associated with the Goidel or Celtic traditions, there were other influences such as the Greeks. The festival of Anthesteria included people making pots filled with porridge, they then would shout into the rooms  “Out the door spirits Anthesteria is over”.

The Roman’s had a festival called Feralia, which was a commemoration of the passing of the dead; this may have been combined with the day to honor Pomona, the goddess of fruits. The apple served as the symbol for Pomona, which may be why we bob for apples.

The Catholic Church named November 1st as All Hallows Day (or All Saint’s Day) as a holy holiday ( a day honoring all the saints, known and unknown). October 31 then would be referred to as Hallows Eve. In Scottish the word eve is “even”, hence Halloweven, or Halloween.  It later named November 2 as All Souls Day (a day commemorating all the faithful who have departed).  

Allhallowride (or Hallowmas), is a Christian observance of all three days. This was a way for the church to try to combine the other holidays into Christian ones. By doing this, they could eventually remove the original meaning of them, and replace them with Christian ones. They did this with other pagan holidays, resulting in our celebration of Christmas and Easter.

One of the traditions dating back to the medieval period was “Soul cakes” being left outside for as treats for the dearly departed. The soul cakes were usually cakes filled with cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg. Later, some people dressed up as the departed, demanding the soul cakes. This was a possible origin of giving out candy for trick-or-treating.

Another possible explanation for trick-or-treating was the Mummer’s play, or mumming. Originally, the play consisted of a sword fight where one character would be killed, but then being revived by another player performing as a Doctor.  After the performance, these actors (still in their costumes) would get money, or treats from the audience.

Today, we celebrate Halloween as a kid’s holiday, or a time for grownups to act like a kid for one night. We must remember what it represented once; in those days, it was a time when the darkness was winning over the light. When just outside the reach of the light from our fires and torches, seemed to lurk unimaginable horror, ready at any second to strike out and grab us. This holiday was a result of that fear of the unknown, a way to make sense of a world we could not understand.

Come Back Soon:  Movies for the Adults on Halloween.

W.A.Rusho is a historian, professional wrestler and author. Visit his website or email him.


  1. Thanks for such a cool overview of the origins behind Halloween. I will admit loving to still dress up and have been coming up with elaborate costumes in recent years.

  2. If I asked the kids who ring my doorbell "how about a soul cake" I'm afraid their parents would grab them and take off. My favorite story here is how the jack-o-lantern was derived from Jack wandering the abyss, rejected likewise by heaven and hell. Most religions don't cover that eventuality.

  3. It's amazing how traditions evolved over time. If there were people from then, here now, they wouldn't know our traditions at all. Thanks for sharing. Great post.

  4. Interesting account of how different old traditions have resulted in today's Halloween. What about the clown menace that has now developed? Is that also based on ancient traditions?

  5. Great look at the origins of Halloween. It's interesting to see how traditions evolve.

  6. Hi William. Thanks for sharing the history of Halloween with us. It is fascinating! I was in Mexico last year just before the Day of the Dead celebrations and found it surprising how everybody in Mexico really seems to embrace this holiday!

  7. Fascinating as always William. I must admit though, having a tough time appreciating a hallowed out turnip vs the pumpkins we're so used to. :-)

  8. I've never heard about the giving out of "soul cakes" before. How interesting to think that could possibly be the origin of giving out candy. I think it is fascinating that what started as a religious observance could turn into what we see today. It is funny how societies shift and transform with time.

  9. This is such an interesting post about the origins of Halloween traditions like the soul cakes and trick-or-treating. The story was also very intriguing. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Love the story of Jack. I had no idea that's where it came from. I love Halloween in our neighborhood. The kids are such great fun. Maybe I'll dress up this year...or hand out wine to the parents. :-)