The History Behind Halloween

afternoon tea.

Halloween is celebrated on the 31st of October, and brings life to the season with many people decorating their houses as well as planning parties and events. Nowadays Halloween celebrations are most often associated with horror films and trick-or-treating and are largely non-religious, but the origins lie in the pagan festivals of Samhain and later, after the Christian adaption of the event, in the celebration of the dead called All Hallows’ Eve. Most of the Halloween traditions we follow today come from the pagan Celtic traditions that were adapted to suit the new modern world after becoming popular in America.

Halloween is celebrated in many other cultures around the world, such as in Mexico where the day of the dead is a hugely popular event. With houses decorated with jack o’ lanterns and spiders’ webs, this holiday is a festive favourite, with many worldwide creating costumes and joining in the fun.


Halloween has its roots in the Celtic celebration of Samhain which originated roughly 2000 years ago. When the festival first began it was believed that the veil between the living world and the land of the dead was thinnest at the end of October, so spirits may slip through. Many Druidic priests would perform ceremonies in order to predict the future in order to give those celebrating hope throughout the winter. The Celts were polytheistic, with many gods that would perform separate functions, and many held a deep belief in the spirits of their ancestors as well as prophecy.

With the epoch of Christianity, Samhain transformed in to All Hallows’ Eve and the Christian faith remodelled the holiday by introducing costumes of saints, angels and devils rather than monsters. The festival was intended to honour the dead, but many of the traditional pagan rituals and activities were merely rebranded rather than banned outright. Many of these traditions that continue today have their roots in this ancient celebration.

Here are some pagan traditions that continue today and the history behind them:

  • Trick or Treat 

The concept of tricking others on the 31st October grew from the traditional pranks that would be arranged in Scotland and Ireland during the festival (pranks that were often blamed on fairies). These pranking traditions were brought over by immigrants to America. In the USA the concept of trick or treat began after many of the traditional Halloween pranks started becoming actively malicious, with many cases of vandalism or even sabotaging train tracks.

The concept of trick or treat was to make the holiday calmer by overtly bribing the troublemakers. The tricksters would be given treats and would be prevented from playing tricks on the inhabitants of the house. In more recent history in San Francisco the day became known as Devils Night in some areas, as many fires would be set by troublemakers on the day causing significant property damage.

  • Costumes 

The origin of wearing costumes on Halloween came from the Celtic people, as they would spend the day lighting bonfires and would wear monstrous costumes to ward away the spirits of the dead. These costumes would likely have taken the form of animal skins and sticks. When Christianity reached the UK the holiday was transformed into the Saints’ Day and those celebrating the festival would dress as different saints, angels and devils.

These celebrations slowly morphed in to dressing up in costumes as we do today, to create a sense of fun or horror. A huge variety of popular costumes are worn each year, from sci fi themed costumes, such as Chewbacca, to the more traditional vampire costume.

  • Carving Pumpkins 

The carved faces of jack o’ lanterns have been used for centuries to ward away evil spirits from trespassing inside people’s homes on the night of Halloween. As the practice originated in Ireland it wasn’t originally pumpkins that were used to create these incredible decorations, but turnips, potatoes – and even beets in England.

The ame Jack o’ Lantern comes from a folk tale of a man called Stingy Jack, who tricked the Devil into swearing not to steal his soul by tricking him into the shape of a coin and trapping him in a tree using a carved cross on the tree trunk. As the legend goes, God refused him entry into heaven and the Devil barred him from hell, leaving his spirit to wander across Ireland with nothing but a hot coal in a carved turnip to light his way. This spirit became known as Jack of the Lantern and the carved faces associated with this folktale remain wildly popular to this day.

  • Apple Bobbing 

Apple bobbing has been an autumn tradition for hundreds of years. The tradition probably began with the Romans bringing apple trees to Britain and cultivating them. Apples are strongly associated with the Roman Goddess Pomona, the patron Goddess of fruit trees, plenty and fertility.

The fruit and the practice of apple bobbing was considered a good indicator for future marriage prospects. Each apple would be assigned the name of a potential marriage partner. If an apple was picked up in one go your marriage and happiness was ensured, if it took two tries your love would fade over time, and if the apple was not picked up in three tries your love was doomed. Another way of playing emerged more recently; in this version apples did not represent specific people, but the first to grasp an apple would be the first to marry.

Pop Culture

While many of the original traditions stretch back for centuries, the modern history of Halloween is intertwined with pop culture and the film industry. Horror films are extremely popular, with the genre reaching new heights due to the effect of CGI and costume makeup which have been used to create incredible films. Horror films as well as Halloween often create a space for us as a culture to explore our collective fears, from being taken over by alien parasites to zombies. However, more recently many modern horror films have been trading on the fear of the unknown, where the evil forces in the film are neither explained nor defeated.

Costume parties and the more enjoyable aspects of Halloween are often associated with pop culture, with millions of Halloween parties being organised worldwide. Here at One Warwick Park we have the facilities to create an incredible Halloween party in one of our function rooms. If you are interested in booking a function room in our hotel, then please contact us here. 

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One Warwick Park Hotel is perfectly located in the centre of Tunbridge Wells, Kent between the historic Pantiles District and the High Street. Being close to the border of West Kent and East Sussex, you can gain easy access to the A21 and the M25. Tunbridge Wells mainline train station is only a short walk or quick taxi ride away and links to London are frequent.
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