Celtic people are responsible for the core of Halloween, as it was first celebrated in their traditions and folklore. They formed a society about 800 BC. Celts were located in the UK, part of Turkey (rather odd!) and a lot of Western Europe. They held a big party close to the end of October which was called Samhain. This was to recognize the end of Summer and the harvest, no doubt. Celts thought that the connection and separation between the real world and the world of the dead and spirits, was thin at this time of year. Friends and relatives returned for a short stay and often in the form of a black cat, which is why that symbol can still represent Halloween.
After harvest, food was offered to the gods. Almost like a modern food drive, they went door to door for food donations, which they then gave to the deities. Young people from that time asked for kindling and firewood for a bonfire, which they made on top of a hill. This tradition of going from door to door may have been the root for trick or treating. Sacred bonfires were often lit during Samhain, in order to honor the Celtic gods. An ember was kept from the bonfire and villagers would light their own fires when they returned home.
A gourd or turnip was used to carry the ember as it would be sheltered from the wind and not burn the wet gourd or turnip pulp. Evil spirits dwelled amongst the Celts, or so they thought, so on a long dark walk home they would disguise themselves in costumes and also scare away the spirits by carving fierce faces on the ember holders. This also carries through to today with lit pumpkins and costumes. Pumpkins are considerably easier to carve than a small turnip or beetroot or gourd.
Neopagans and wiccans continue to celebrate Samhain to this day as they base a lot of their faith on the ancient Celts. Some traditions were based on the Celtic ones but some have evolved from other sources. The Jack O’Lantern came from a 17th century Irish folktale. The devil took pity on a departed soul who was not allowed into either heaven or hell, and gave him a burning coal to light his way as he wandered around the globe. This Jack took to carrying the ember in a partially eaten turnip.
Apples have been associated with goddesses for a long time, as they were with Adam & Eve, There association with immortality, knowledge and resurrection has made them an icon. A five-pointed star is revealed if an apple is sliced through its equator. A pentagram came from this symbol, it’s thought. The latter is a goddess symbol for Gypsies, ancient Egyptians and Celts, and contemporary Wiccans and others. Bobbing for apples and trying to grab a dangling apple was a game for singles who, if they grabbed an apple, were said to be in line for a marriage proposal.
If someone peeled an apple in front of a mirror lit with candles (one would hope that they’d keep their eyes on the knife!), then an image of a future spouse was supposed to appear. If the peeler could make a long string of peel then this was said to “guestimate” how long a person would live. On All Souls Day, Christians from Europe would go door to door asking for currant buns or soul cakes. If they got any, they’d pray for the homeowner’s relatives.
All Hallow’s Eve was the original name for Halloween. This meant the evening right before All Saints Day. Hallow meant saint in old English and the phrase was eventually shortened to Halloween.