Halloween is derived from an ancient Celtic festival, Samhain. This was one of the Celts four 'Grand Sabbats' along with Candlemas, Beltane and Lammas.
Samhain, on October 31st, marked the end of the pagan year and the beginning of winter.
Pre-Christian Europeans held four major pagan festivals each year, including one on 31st October - Samhain. In a world dominated by the seasons it marked the end of the agricultural year and the onset of winter.
It was believed that on that night the barriers between our world and the spirit world were at their weakest. Weak enough, in fact, to allow the souls of the dead to return to earth in search of the warmth and light of their former lives.
Samhain is a fire festival
Bonfires were lit at Samhain to impart heat and strength to the sun for the coming winter, whilst keeping away any mischevious spirits who might otherwise have delighted in causing fright!
Of course it was also an excuse for a big party.
In England, turnips were hollowed out and made into lanterns with faces - intended to scare away any troublemakers from the spirit world.
This tradition crossed the Atlantic to North America, where Pumpkins were used as lanterns, intended to guide the spirits to a place where a portion of the festival meal would be left for them. The early Christian church soon realised that since the pagan festivals were enjoyed so much by the majority they would not be abolished easily.
Instead, they were adopted into the Christian calendar, usually with some adaptation. Samhain was officially recognised by Pope John 14th in 1006, as All Hallows Eve, the night before All Souls Day (November 1st - already a Christian festival).
The pagan elements of the festival then received bad press from the Church, who stated that Samhain was nothing more than an excuse for 'witches to make trouble'. It was 'played down' and eventually reduced to an evening of pranks when children would dress up and play games. Over time the name was shortened to Halloween.
Pagan religions have enjoyed a revival in recent years and the old fire festival of Samhain is still practiced in its pre-Halloween form by pagan groups around the world, many of whom see it as their New Year's Eve.
In 1604 Guy Fawkes may have failed in his plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, but he unwittingly provided an excuse to move the bonfire festival from 31st October to 5th November, at the same time disguising the pagan connection.
Elements of some other ancient festivals such as Yule and May Day have also survived to the present day.
The pumpkin lantern is an American adaptation - in Britain turnips were used.
There were four major celtic festivals each year, with four other minor ones.
The word pagan comes from the latin paganus, which means 'country dweller'.
Origins of Easter
At Easter, Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ, which is at the very heart of their religion. But many of today's Easter traditions are in fact derived from much older pre-Christian origins.
The Goddess Eostre
The name 'Easter' is derived from Eostre or Eostra, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and sunrise. Little is known about the mythology of Eostre, but her symbols of fertility – the hare and the egg – have survived and been incorporated into the modern Christian festival.
Eostre's feast day was held on the first full moon after the spring equinox, and a similar calculation is used by Western Christians to determine the date of Easter.
The Spring Equinox
You may have noticed that the Easter weekend is always on a different date. This is because Easter Sunday is always on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, so the date it falls on can vary widely.
An equinox is a day in the year when night and day are of equal length, which happens once in the spring and once in the autumn. The spring equinox marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
Christians commemorate Jesus' death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. Christians celebrate his resurrection as it signifies eternal life. This is a time of rejoicing rebirth and life after death.
As this happened at the same time of year as the pagan spring festival, it's not surprising that the two celebrations of new life and hope became linked, especially as spring (a time of new life) follows winter (a time when nature dies).
Eggs are potent symbols of resurrection and rebirth, as live birds appear from seemingly lifeless shells, so it's easy to see how the egg has become associated with springtime and with the return of new life and new hope.
Ancient Greek legend also has it that Eurynome, who was the goddess of all things, took the form of a dove and laid an egg out of which the Earth and all the living things on it hatched.
Newborn chicks can also be seen adorning Easter paraphernalia. Chicks, lambs and all kinds of baby creatures are associated with spring, and are symbols of new life after the barrenness of winter.
The bright colour of the chicks' feathers reminds us of the onset of the warmer weather.
There is a legend that the goddess Eostre once rescued a bird whose wings had been frozen in a harsh winter.
It couldn't fly, so she took pity on it and turned it into a hare.
Eostre declared that the hare would always herald the arrival of spring.