Halloween 2020 will be nothing we have experienced for a very long time – possibly since the ‘Spanish’ flu of a century ago. With partial and full lockdowns in place across much of the globe, it will have tested human ingenuity to its limits to try and extract at least some fun from the occasion – especially for the young.

As recently as 24 October, the website for the revered organisation, English Heritage, put out the following publicity

“Grab your broomsticks for a ghoulishly great day out at our Halloween events taking place across the country.
Kids and families can head to our historic places this Halloween half term with spooky storytelling, creepy crafts and trick or treat themed trails at our castles, abbeys and houses.
Come nightfall, for those who are brave enough – dare to explore some of the country’s eeriest castles and discover the darker side of history.Of course, participants were expected to honour government guidelines on social distancing, the ‘rule of six’ and the wearing of face masks.”

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, was urging Americans to “not use a costume mask as a substitute for a cloth mask unless it is made of two or more layers of breathable fabric that covers your mouth and nose and doesn’t leave gaps around your face”. Both British and American government advice was asking all of us to think very carefully before sending children on their traditional ‘trick and treat’ visits to neighbourhoods – and only in areas where the infection rate is low.

And so it’s fair to say that this year’s Halloween will have been a very low-key affair – notably so in areas where the rainfall was high.

Blue Moon. by Ursus sapien.

However a month of glorious skywatching ended with a spooky spectacle and that was the rare appearance of a blue moon – named as such because it’s the second full moon of the same month — following the harvest moon of 1 to 3 October. And in a rare treat, the 2020 Halloween full moon will have been visible to the entire world, rather than just parts of it, for the first time since World War II. Now, people know it to be rare since the saying goes, “once in a blue moon.” Those occur about once every two-and-a-half years.

Robert Burns courtesy Wikipedia

The word Halloween or Hallowe’en dates to about 1745.[1] Of Christian origin, it means “Saint’s evening”.[2] It comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows’ Eve (the evening before All Hallows’ Day.[3] Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Hallowe’en. The word appears as the title of Robert Burn’s “Halloween” (1785), a poem traditionally recited by Scots. Although the phrase “All Hallows'” is found in Old English “All Hallows’ Eve” is itself not seen until 1556.

Southampton, Pennsylvania 2019 photo by Colyn Boyce

Halloween is a celebration observed in many countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide,[4] the time in the religious calendar dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed.[5] [6] There is not agreement on the exact origins of the celebration. One theory holds that many Halloween traditions originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain, which may have had pagan roots.[7] Other scholars believe, however, that Halloween began solely as a Christian holiday, separate from ancient festivals like Samhain. [8] [9]

Trick or Treaters in Sweden photo Wikipedia

Halloween activities include trick-or-treating, attending Halloween costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, divination games, playing pranks, visiting haunted attractions, telling scary stories, as well as watching horror films. [10]

In many parts of the world, the Christian religious observances of All Hallows’ Eve, including attending church services and lighting candles on the graves of the dead, remain popular, although elsewhere it is a more commercial and secular celebration.[11] Some Christians historically abstained from meat on All Hallows’ Eve, a tradition reflected in the eating of certain vegetarian foods on this vigil day, including apples, potato pancakes, and soul cakes. [12]

Samhain was the first and most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Gaelic calendar and was celebrated on 31 October – 1 November in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.[13]  A kindred festival called Calan Gaeaf  was held in Wales, marking the end of harvest and the beginning of the winter.[14]

Like Beltane/Calan Mai, it was seen as a liminal  time, when the boundary between this world and the ‘Otherworld’ thinned. This led to the belief of fairies and the dead appearing in the real world – and it’s also why being ‘haunted’ is so commonly associated with Halloween. Some felt the need to propitiate these ‘spirits’ to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink, or portions of the crops, were left outside one’s homes.[15]

Halloween Bangladesh courtesy Wikipedia

The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night of the year and must be appeased has ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world.[16] In 19th century Ireland, “candles would be lit and prayers formally offered for the souls of the dead. After this the eating, drinking, and games would begin”.[17]

Throughout Ireland and Britain, the household festivities included rituals and games intended to foretell one’s future, especially regarding death and marriage.[18] Apples and nuts were often used in these divination rituals. Special bonfires were lit – their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers.[19] In Wales, bonfires were lit to “prevent the souls of the dead from falling to earth” and to keep “away the devil”.[20]

From at least the 16th century,[21] the festival included mumming and guising in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Wales.[22] This involved people going house-to-house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting verses or songs in exchange for food. It may have originally been a tradition whereby people impersonated the Aos Sí, or the souls of the dead, and received offerings on their behalf, similar to the custom of souling. Impersonating these beings, or wearing a disguise, was also believed to protect oneself from them.[23]  It is suggested that the mummers and guisers “personify the old spirits of the winter, who demanded reward in exchange for good fortune”.[24]

Jack O’Lantern Oxford University

From at least the 18th century,[21] “imitating malignant spirits” led to playing pranks in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.  Wearing costumes and playing pranks at Halloween spread to England in the 20th century. Traditionally, pranksters used hollowed out turnips or mangel wurzels often carved with grotesque faces as lanterns. By those who made them, the lanterns were variously said to represent the spirits,[22] or were used to ward off evil spirits.[25] [26]

They were common in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands in the 19th century as well as in Somerset. In the 20th century they spread to other parts of England and became generally known as jack-o’-lanterns.[22] 

By the end of the 12th century in the Christian church the celebration of Allhallowtide had become holy days of obligation across Europe and involved such traditions as ringing church bells for the souls in purgatory. In addition, “it was customary for criers dressed in black to parade the streets, ringing a bell of mournful sound and calling on all good Christians to remember the poor souls.”[27] “Souling”, the custom of baking and sharing soul cakes for all christened souls,[28] has been suggested as the origin of trick-or-treating. [29] [89] The custom dates back at least as far as the 15th century and was found in parts of England, Flanders, Germany and Austria.[16] Groups of poor people, often children, would go door-to-door during Allhallowtide, collecting soul cakes, in exchange for praying for the dead, especially the souls of the givers’ friends and relatives.[30]  Soul cakes would also be offered for the souls themselves to eat.[16]

Almanacs of the late 18th and early 19th century give no indication that Halloween was widely celebrated in North America. It was not until mass Irish and Scottish immigration in the 19th century that Halloween became a major holiday in America,[31] confined to the immigrant communities during the mid-19th century. It was gradually assimilated into mainstream society and was celebrated coast to coast by people of all social, racial, and religious backgrounds by the first decade of the 20th century.[32] The earliest known use in print of the term “trick or treat” appears in 1927, in the Blackie Herald, of Alberta, Canada. [33]

Halloween costumes are traditionally modelled after supernatural figures such as vampires, monsters, ghosts, skeletons, witches and devils.[29] Over time, the costume selection extended to include popular characters from fiction, celebrities, and generic archetypes such as ninjas and princesses. Dressing up in costumes and going “guising” was prevalent in Scotland and Ireland at Halloween by the late 19th century.[34]

The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. Photo by InSapphoWeTrust

Costuming became popular for Halloween parties in the US in the early 20th century, as often for adults as for children, and when trick-or-treating was becoming popular in Canada and the US in the 1920s and 1930s. [33] [35]

The yearly Greenwich Village Halloween Parade was begun in 1974 by puppeteer and mask maker Ralph Lee of Greenwich Village; it is the world’s largest Halloween parade and America’s only major night-time parade, attracting more than 60,000 costumed participants, two million spectators, and a worldwide television audience.[36]

According to a 2018 report from the National Retail Federation 30 million Americans were estimated to have spent $480 million on Halloween costumes for their pets in 2018. This is up from an estimated $200 million in 2010. The most popular costumes for pets are the pumpkin, followed by the hot dog, and the bumble bee in third place.[37]

I had the pleasure of visiting the eastern United States and Canada during October 2019 where I witnessed all the paraphernalia of the season – like the prevalence of pumpkins for sale in suburban Detroit – and in particular the front porches of many homes in Toronto, Buffalo and Philadelphia decorated with no manner of macabre Halloween symbols such as witches, skeletons, ghosts, cobwebs and headstones. The modern imagery of Halloween draws on many sources, including Christian eschatology, works of Gothic and horror literature including the novels Frankenstein and Dracula, and classic horror films such as Frankenstein and The Mummy.[38] [39] Imagery of the skull, a reference to Golgotha in the Christian tradition, serves as “a reminder of death and the transitory quality of human life”.[40]

Toronto Spooks by Colyn Boyce

One has to be wooden to not have been affected by the events of the Covid 19 pandemic of the past six months. It’s enough to get depressed just watching the television news – even if one’s own friends and relatives have not been touched by this virus, one has to feel sorry for those less fortunate who have either succumbed to the disease or know friends or relatives who have suffered this fate. And we have not even mentioned the likely ‘carnage’ still to come in the death of many jobs, worldwide.

But we should not forget that in the ‘tide’ of human affairs, every situation and season brings both challenges and consolations and most important of all – a chance to reflect on the ‘nature’ of human existence and an opportunity to demonstrate compassion (in the human and other kingdoms) to those less fortunate than oneself.

Delaware Park, Buffalo. by Colyn Boyce

If spring represents new birth and childhood and summer symbolizes youth, then Autumn is all about adulthood and maturity. The Autumn harvest is associated with abundance, prosperity and wealth. I was fortunate to be in North America last year to marvel at one of nature’s magical moments as the trees put on a spectacular display of changing colours.

The power of nature is one of the main themes in John Keats poem, To Autumn, published 200 years ago. The poem, which is reproduced below, expresses reverence and awe for the great changes wrought by nature as Autumn brings its richness to the landscape.

John Keats courtesy Wikipedia


To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.



[1] Online Etymology Dictionary: Halloween”. 16 October 2013
[2] Luck, Steve (22 October 1998). The American Desk Encyclopedia. Oxford University Press.
[3] The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. 1989~
[4] “Tudor Hallowtide”. National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. 2012.
[5] Hughes, Rebekkah (29 October 2014). “Happy Hallowe’en Surrey!” (PDF). The Stag. University of Surrey. p. 1
[6] Davis, Kenneth C. (29 December 2009). Don’t Know Much About Mythology: Everything You Need to Know About the Greatest Stories in Human History but Never Learned. Harper Collins. p. 231.
[7] Nicholas Rogers (2002). Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press.
[8] O’Donnell, Hugh; Foley, Malcolm (18 December 2008). Treat or Trick? Halloween in a Globalising World. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 91–92.
[9] Barr, Beth Allison (28 October 2016). “Guess what: Halloween is more Christian than Pagan”. The Washington Post.
[10] Paul Fieldhouse (17 April 2017). Food, Feasts, and Faith: An Encyclopedia of Food Culture in World Religions. ABC-CLIO. p. 256.
[11] Kernan, Joe (30 October 2013). “Not so spooky after all: The roots of Halloween are tamer than you think”. Cranston Herald. 26 November 2015.
[12] Fieldhouse, Paul (17 April 2017). Food, Feasts, and Faith: An Encyclopedia of Food Culture in World Religions. ABC-CLIO. p. 254,
[13] A Pocket Guide To Superstitions of the British Isles (Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; Reprint edition: 4 November 2004)
[14] Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí. Myth, Legend & Romance: An encyclopaedia of the Irish folk tradition. Prentice Hall Press, 1991. p. 402
[15] Evans-Wentz, Walter (1911). The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. p. 44.
[16] Miles, Clement A. (1912). Christmas in Ritual and TraditionChapter 7: All Hallow Tide to Martinmas
[17] Hutton The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press, 1996 p.379
[18[ Hutton, p.380
[19] Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Infobase Publishing, 2004. p. 407
[20] Rosinsky, Natalie M. (1 July 2002). Halloween. Capstone. p. 8.
[21] McNeill, F. Marian. Hallowe’en: its origin, rites and ceremonies in the Scottish tradition. Albyn Press, 1970. pp. 29–31
[22] Hutton, pp. 379–383
[23] Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. Hutchinson, 1976. p. 91
[24] Peddle, S. V. (2007). Pagan Channel Islands: Europe’s Hidden Heritage. p. 54
[25] Palmer, Kingsley. Oral folk-tales of Wessex. David & Charles, 1973. pp. 87–88
[26]  Wilson, David Scofield. Rooted in America: Foodlore of Popular Fruits and Vegetables. Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1999. p. 154
[27]  The World Review – Volume 4, University of Minnesota, p. 255
[28] Rogers, Nicholas (2001). Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press. pp. 28–30.
[29] “Halloween”. Encyclopædia Britannica. 30 October 2012
[30] Hutton, pp. 374–375
[31] Rogers, pp. 49-50
[32] Rogers, p. 74
[33] “‘Trick or Treat’ Is Demand”, Herald (Lethbridge, Alberta), 4 November 1927, p. 5,
[34] Leslie, Frank (5 February 2009). Frank Leslie’s popular monthly, Volume 40, November 1895, pp. 540-543.
[35] Miller, Marian (31 October 1932). ‘Halloween Jollity Within Reason Need”. The Morning Oregonian, p. 8.
[36] Village Halloween Parade. ‘History of the Parade”. 27 July 2014.
[37] Keshner, Andrew (17 October 2018). “Instagram-loving pets owners will spend nearly $500M on animal costumes this Halloween.” MarketWatch.
[38]The Rhetoric of Vision: Essays on Charles Williams (Charles Adolph Huttar, Peter J. Schakel), Bucknell University Press, p. 155
[39] Rogers, Nicholas (2002). “Halloween Goes to Hollywood”. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, pp. 103–124. New York: Oxford University Press.
[40] A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art (Gertrude Grace Sill), Simon and Schuster, p. 64

I am also grateful for information provided by Wikipedia, the Manchester Evening News and the Sun newspaper (UK) and the Post-Standard newspaper of Syracuse, New York.


Written by

A Canadian by birth, Colyn Boyce is a former radio journalist, who worked in central British Columbia in the 1970s. Born in 1951, he joined the Theosophical Society in Vancouver in 1969. An inveterate traveller, he hitch-hiked across America in 1972 and travelled extensively through southern and central Europe after arriving in Britain in 1977. What was meant to be a six month holiday, turned in permanent residency in the UK. From 1981 until 2018, he was Publicist for the English Section of the Theosophical Society - arranging an ambitious programme of lectures, seminars and courses. For about 25 years he was assistant editor of the house magazine, Insight, which he typeset and illustrated - showcasing many of his own photographs. In 2018 he undertook a lecture tour of theosophical branches in western Canada and in 2019 - over a 3 week stint - spoke in Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York City and Buffalo.

Latest comment
  • Wonderful article, Colyn! Well RESEARCHED and a great read!