The History of Halloween

It’s that time of year again, the 31st of October, Halloween! What is it and why is it so popular in North America, the UK and anglophone countries? Well it originally started as Samhain, (pronounced ‘Saa’’wen’) an old Celtic Pagan festival. The Celts believed it was a day when the fairies and spirits could walk among the living, and disguised their faces so as not to be recognised by these creatures. The name was changed several times over the centuries and as its religious roots developed towards Christianity, from All Saints Day to All Hallows Eve and finally Hallowe’en.

It is probably most widely celebrated in America and this all started in the 19th century when the Irish and Celts exported their traditions over there as they emigrated. The tradition has also continued in the UK and today it is still a popular event there, although now it has been commercialised on both sides of the Atlantic and has largely forgotten its religious roots. Adults and children get involved, participating in games, dressing up, wearing masks and decorating their houses and gardens with witches, ghosts, monsters and other scary figures, with orange, black and green being the predominant colours for the festival.

One of the most iconic and popular symbols of Halloween is the pumpkin. This was first introduced in America, as they substituted the vegetable of choice in the UK which was the turnip, as it was far more accessible in those parts of the world. Pumpkin carving, apple-bobbing and trick-or-treating are some of the popular Halloween activities nowadays. I remember my first night trick-or-treating with my cousins when I was young, I think I modified one of my mums old dresses so I looked like a bat (or more likely a young ‘Prince’ tribute act), and off we went to knock on the neighbours doors, asking for sweets (the ‘treat’) or threatening them with a ‘trick’ (like a squirt with a water pistol) if they didn’t provide! We followed that up with some apple-bobbing where the aim is to lift apples out of a bucket of water using only your mouth or teeth, no hands – which was a great way to wash off that mascara I had on for my bat eyes!

Although not originally very widely celebrated in France, Halloween is slowly becoming more popular, with more and more children dressing up in their favourite costumes and not wanting to miss an opportunity to receive sweets! It remains one of the biggest excuses to dress-up every year for adults too, with the market for fancy dress growing year on year as people tend to go out to party for Halloween in North America, the UK and Ireland. My home city of Derry in Northern Ireland has one of Europe’s biggest Halloween celebrations every year, with a huge carnival and fireworks display. I’ll be spending it in Mafate myself though….so maybe I will hold back on the mascara and bat costume this year!


fairies – fées
disguised – déguisé
largely – principalement
to dress up – se déguiser
witches – sorcières

pumpkin – citrouille
turnip – navet
carving – sculpture
bat – chauve-souris
knock – frapper

trick – astuce/ruse
bucket – seau
costumes – déguisements
sweets – bon-bons
tend – avoir tendance

fireworks – feu d’artifice

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