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The Ancient Tradition of Halloween

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You might be surprised to hear that halloween does in fact originate on this side of the pond in the British Isles, which is interesting considering that nowadays it’s mainly seen as a North American Tradition. Halloween as we know it today was actually stitched together from a range of different cultures which have blended together and developed over time – from ancient Celtic rituals, to Christian observances, European immigrant’s customs to modern commercialisation, there’s no one origin of Halloween, it’s more like a magic potion of traditions!

Long before pumpkin-carving and costume-wearing were the main focus of the end of October, the Celts (a group of tribal people that inhabited Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany) celebrated a pagan festival called Samhain – which is pronounced as “Sau-ihn“. The Celts were deeply in tune with nature, and their customs deeply influence some of the Halloween traditions that we still take part in today.

Samhain marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter – which in today’s calendar is on the night between October 31st and 1st November. Because it is a harvest festival, the Celts would celebrate the successful gathering of crops before the start of winter and they would use this time to prepare and store food for the cold months ahead.

But it gets better! The Celts believed that on the night of Samhain, the boundary between the physical world and the spiritual world was at its weakest, meaning that spirits and other supernatural beings were able to walk on earth among the living. To protect themselves from the spirits and to blend in with them, the Celts would dress in costumes and wear masks, mostly as animals and monsters to avoid getting kidnapped. This tradition survived over 2000 years, and we still dress up on halloween today!

To scare away bad spirits and to honour their ancestors, the Celts would also light large bonfires, which were also pretty practical since they provided warmth and light during the festival. Alongside the fires, it was also believed that Samhain was the perfect night for divination and rituals for predicting what the future year might hold. Although this isn’t something that has been carried forward into modern-day halloween, it definitely adds to the magic and mystery of this time of year.

Over several centuries and the gradual introduction of Christianity in the British Isles, Celtic Shamanic traditions integrated with Christian ones. This process happened slowly and over time until it reached a peak in the medieval period. Until then, there were many attempts to Christianise Samhain, the most important of which is the establishment of All Saints’ Day in the 7th century, also known as All Hallows’ Day (hallow… sound familiar?).

It was and still is celebrated on November 2nd and aimed to provide a religious alternative for Celtic people who were used to celebrating Samhain at around the same time

All Hallows’ Eve (aka Halloween) retained some of the customs of Samhain like bonfires and believing in the spirits of ancestors, but christianised them by symbolising the bonfires as the triumph of light and christianity over darkness and paganism.

The custom of wearing costumes also underwent a christian shift, and instead of dressing up as animals and monsters, people began dressing up as saints or angels.

So now you might be wondering how the United States got mixed up into all of this. Well, the origins of Halloween in the USA can be traced back to the early colonial period between the 16th and 18th centuries. Some of the earliest colonists especially of Irish and Scottish descent brought their Halloween traditions to North America with them. It was most popular in the southern colonies like Virginia because of the high number of Scottish and Irish settlers, and in these regions Halloween customs like dressing up, bonfires and pranks were more common.

One particular tradition that changed a little when brought over to America was the carving of Jack-o-lanterns. The Celts traditionally carved lanterns out of turnips and root vegetables to ward off evil spirits and protect their homes, and they used to place them in their doorways much like people do nowadays.

When the potato famine hit Ireland in the mid 19th century, a huge number of irish immigrants relocated to North America, and they brought the tradition of vegetable carving with them, but they discovered that pumpkins are much easier to carve than turnips and also easier to find… so eventually they stopped carving turnips and it turned into a pumpkin tradition! Even today, we call these lanterns Jack-o-lanterns…

The name Jack-o-lantern has a really interesting origin; it comes from an old irish legend about a man called Stingy Jack. According to the legend, Jack was a con-man who tricked the devil countless times. When Jack died, because he was such a trickster, neither Heaven nor Hell wanted him, and he was condemned to walk around earth with only a turnip and a burning coal to light his way. Originally, the turnips were called Jack’s Lanterns, but eventually the name Jack-o-lantern stuck. Nowadays, people carve artistic designs into pumpkins and use them as spooky decorations around their houses and gardens on halloween!

Trick-or-treating is a tradition where children typically dressed up in costumes go door-to-door in their neighbourhoods to collect sweets and treats. Usually, children dress up in costumes and meet up with their friends. They then knock on doors around their neighbourhood and all shout the phrase ‘Trick-or-Treat?!’. The person at the door then has to choose (spoiler: they always say treat) and then give each of the kids a sweet. The children then make their way to the next house. If you live in a halloween celebrating neighbourhood, make sure you have loads of sweets available… otherwise you might get tricked!

Although the tradition of trick-or-treating is more of a modern tradition than Samhain and evolved especially over the past few centuries, it does adopt different elements from different time periods!

The idea of dressing up in costumes comes from the Celtic period, since they would wear disguises to protect themselves.

Then, a little later in time, the tradition of ‘souling’ was established. Around the time of All Saint’s day which was enforced by the Christian church, children and beggars would go around door-to-door and ask for ‘soul cakes’ (small round cakes made with spices like cinnamon) in return for prayers for the dead. Because the date of this tradition was so close to halloween, over time they merged together and eventually were carried out on the same day.

Although they were called soul “cakes” they were actually a lot more like biscuits. They were much blander and simplistic than these though!

Another tradition added to the mix, which began a little later in medieval Europe, was called ‘Mumming and Guising’. This included dressing up in costumes and visiting neighbours to perform for them, sing for them or entertain them in exchange for food or money. This is the closest tradition to halloween as we know it today, since nowadays many children dress up in costumes and visit their neighbours’ homes to collect sweets and treats and show off their costumes. Over time, and especially at the start of the 20th century the phrase ‘trick-or-treat’ became more and more popular as going around to neighbours’ houses turned into a playful event, not a sad or spooky one.

There’s no doubt that the halloween that we know today is quite different from the ancient festival from a couple of thousands of years ago. Through the infusion of other traditions and the commercialisation that we have today, halloween is seen more as a fun time than a serious Celebration of the spirits.

What’s more is that although halloween is widely celebrated in the UK, it’s not such a huge celebration in comparison to the extravagant parties and elaborate attractions that you might find in the United states, which is probably why many people mistake Halloween as a purely American tradition.

Because of its spooky nature, the halloween that we celebrate today is also a time when people might enjoy getting scared, scaring themselves or scaring others. Many Halloween traditions reflect this, such as dressing up in scary costumes, watching horror movies, visiting haunted houses, putting up scary halloween decorations and telling scary stories, just to name a few – but… why? Watch the video to find out!

Now that you’ve watched the video, can you answer these questions? Click the link below to take the quiz

Test Yourself – Ted Lessons – Why do we like to scare ourselves?


  • Boston University – How Did Halloween Get Started?
  • Cambridge Scholars – Treat or Trick? Halloween in a Globalising World
  • – Samhain
  • Britannica – Why Do We Celebrate Halloween?

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Exam Corner: C1 Exam Style Writing Questions

If you’re preparing for an Exam like the Cambridge C1 or IELTS exam, reading about interesting topics doesn’t just have to be about fun and games. Many writing tasks evaluate your critical thinking and cultural understanding, and understanding celebrations like halloween can help you to do that. Practicing with writing questions will prepare you for exams, and questions like these below simulate the types of tasks you’ll encounter in the test, helping you refine your skills in structuring well-organized responses, using formal language appropriately, and providing evidence to support your arguments.

Practicing with a variety of topics, such as cultural values and celebrations, will broaden your knowledge and strengthen your ability to handle a wide range of writing tasks. Consistent practice with these questions will boost your confidence and performance on exam day!

Check out the exam-style questions below. Choose one and construct your answer! Feel free to write your answer in the comments section if you would like some feedback!

Explore the significance of cultural celebrations in preserving and promoting cultural values. Discuss the role of such celebrations in strengthening a sense of identity and unity among a community or nation.

Prepare a report on the cultural celebrations and festivals that are most significant in your region. Highlight the cultural values, traditions, and historical context associated with these celebrations.

Draft a formal letter or email to a local government authority, advocating for increased support for cultural celebrations in your area. Explain the cultural and social benefits of such events and request financial or logistical assistance.

How to plan: Question 1 walkthrough

Let’s say that you chose this question:

Explore the significance of cultural celebrations in preserving and promoting cultural values. Discuss the role of such celebrations in strengthening a sense of identity and unity among a community or nation.

In your plan, you should aim for a solid structure, something like this:

  • Introduction
  • Paragraph 1
  • Paragraph 2
  • Paragraph 3
  • Conclusion

Next you should plan which ideas to express for each section. This will help you to score points for structure and coherence! Make sure you take some time to do this, but not too much, it should take you about 5-

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The Ancient Tradition of Halloween


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