History and traditions of Halloween in the UK, plus how to carve a pumpkin and recipes ideas

Our guide looks at the history of Halloween customs in the UK, its ancient origins, plus tips on how to carve a pumpkin, and tasty pumpkin recipe ideas

Pumpkin carving is a popular Halloween tradition in the UK today (Getty)

Halloween celebrations today are mere echoes of our ancient, chilling Celtic customs. All Hallows Eve and autumn festivities can trace their roots to three pagan traditions and festivities from centuries past.


Our guide looks at the history of Halloween customs in the UK, its ancient origins, plus tips on how to carve a pumpkin(safely!) and tasty pumpkin recipe ideas.

What is the history of Halloween in Britain?

The origins of Halloween date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Meaning ‘summer’s end’, this Feast of the Dead heralded the beginning of winter and the ‘darker half’ of the year. Samhain stems from Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, where the dead were honoured through the burning of a sacred, communal bonfire built by the druids. The bones of sacrificed animals were cast onto the flames, which incidentally forms the origins of the word ‘bonfire’. People from the community brought harvest food for a great feast and some wore costumes made from animal skins or heads. It was thought to be a ghostly time of year when the spirit world made contact with the physical world which is where the name Halloween comes from. It was previously known as All-hallows-even and then Hallow Eve.


Other Halloween customs

On the eve of Calan Gaeaf- the first day of winter – the people of Wales would celebrate a festival similar to that of their Celtic cousins. Feasting, bonfires and prophecies were all central to the proceedings. This night was also one of several nights of the year where the Cwn Annwn (Hounds of the Otherworld) would hunt the souls of wrongdoers for their master, Arawn. The growl of the hounds would be at its loudest far away and would become softer and softer as they grew nearer. As the sun sets this Hallowe’en, stay clear of Cadair Idris in Snowdonia, if you wish to avoid the hunting grounds of Wales’ most abominable creatures.

Cornwall’s version of the festival marking the first day of winter was less sinister and involved lots of apples. Known as Kalan Gwaw, apples acted as the centrepiece for a great harvest feast celebrating fertility rather than the dead. There was a strong focus on looking towards the future and included customs such as throwing nuts into fires to predict the fidelity of one’s partner, and apples played a large part in prophecy games and were presented to family and friends as tokens of good luck for the hard winter months ahead.

What is the history of Halloween pumpkin carving?

Every Halloween, glowing orange faces scowl at you from doorsteps, as the Halloween tradition of carving pumpkins commences. This tradition began in Ireland in response to a popular folktale about a man who carried a carved-out turnip filled with glowing coal with him in the afterlife. Irish immigrants introduced the custom to America, where the round orange pumpkins we use today are readily available, and the ‘Jack-o’-lantern’ was born. Since the 1990s, pumpkin carving for Halloween has become an increasingly popular activity across Britain.

Is pumpkin a fruit or vegetable?

Pumpkins are a member of the squash family and are believed to have originated in North America. Pumpkins are actually a type of fruit and there are around 500 varieties worldwide, growing in many different shapes and sizes. They take up to five months to grow and are harvested in the UK between October and December. Pumpkin provides an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and fibre, plus the seeds are full of zinc and antioxidants.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 31: An installation of 3,000 candle-lit pumpkins blanket the canal side steps at Granary Square on October 31, 2014 in London, England. The pumpkins, created by members of youth development group Global Generation and other carvers, will be on display and illuminated from dusk until Saturday November 1, 2014. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)
Pumpkin festivals are held around the country every Halloween, showing off the art of pumpkin carving © Getty

How to carve a pumpkin safely

This Halloween, learn how to carve the perfect pumpkin with our simple step-by-step guide:

Children making Halloween Jack O’lanterns
Pumpkin carving is a great family activity © Getty
  1. Using a sharp knife, cut around the top of the pumpkin.
  2. With a large spoon, scoop out the seeds and some of the flesh from the inside.
  3. With a marker, draw out your design on to the pumpkin. Make it as simple or as creative as you like! Then with a smaller sharp knife, begin to carve out your design.  Always cut away from you, to avoid any injuries.
  4. Place a tealight inside the candle, light, and replace the lid of the pumpkin.

Make sure children have adult supervision at all times when carving.

Millions of pumpkins are grown in Britain every year © Getty

Pumpkin farming in the UK

Due to the ever-growing demand for the winter squash, UK farmers are producing more and more each year. In fact, Britain is home to Europe’s largest pumpkin grower, in Lincolnshire, producing a whopping 2 million pumpkins per year. But come the end of October, demand drops dramatically – so is it worth it for the farmers?

Spiced toffee apple cake (Photo by: BBC Good Food)

Three tasty pumpkin recipes to make this Halloween

Pumpkins have a lot more to offer than just creepy lanterns: they’re also an incredibly versatile ingredient in the kitchen.  From creamy soups to sweet pies, there are plenty of ways to incorporate a delicious squash into your cooking. Come the end of All Hallows Eve, there will be many a pumpkin to use up – so why not rustle up something tasty? Celebrate Halloween with these tasty pumpkin recipes from BBC Good Food Magazine

Pumpkin and bacon soup

Make this warming and easy pumpkin and bacon soup by Tom Kerridge.

Tom Kerridge’s Pumpkin and Bacon Soup taken from BBC Good Food © BBC Good Food/Peter Cassidy

Pumpkin, fennel & Taleggio galette

Pumpkin, fennel and taleggio galette/Credit: Helen Cathcart

Serves 6 Ready in 35 mins

Cook 1 hr 30 mins 


  • 700g pumpkin or 1 small squash
  • 5 tbsp olive oil
  • grating of nutmeg
  • 2 small fennel bulbs
  • juice 1/2 small lemon
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds, toasted and coarsely crushed
  • 470g spinach, coarse stalks removed
  • 15g unsalted butter
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 1 egg yolk mixed with 2 tsp milk (to make an egg wash)
  • 200g Taleggio (or vegetarian alternative), sliced
  • 375g puff pastry


1. Heat oven to 190C/170C fan/gas 5. Peel the squash, then halve and deseed it before cutting the flesh into thick wedges and halving them again to make quarters. Put the slices in a roasting tin with half the olive oil, the nutmeg and seasoning, and toss to coat. Roast for 30 mins, or until tender and a little caramelised.

2. Halve the fennel bulbs lengthways and remove the tops and tough outer leaves from each piece. Trim the base and cut each half into thick wedges, keeping them intact at the base. Put the wedges straight into a bowl and toss with the lemon juice to prevent discolouring. Add the fennel seeds, remaining olive oil and some seasoning, then toss well.

3. Spread the fennel in a roasting tin large enough to hold it in a single layer and cover with foil. Roast the fennel (at the same time as the squash) for 20 mins, or until tender with pale-gold undersides.

4. Wash the spinach and cook in a covered pan over a medium heat for 1-2 mins. When wilted, drain in a colander and leave to cool.

5. Squeeze the excess moisture out of the spinach, chop roughly and season. Melt the butter in a frying pan and quickly fry the spinach with the garlic for 3 mins. Set aside.

6. Roll out the pastry to make the base of the tart, ending up with a piece measuring roughly 28 x 38cm. Put the pastry base on to a floured metal baking sheet. Create a border all the way round by lightly running a knife 2cm from the edge. Prick the rest of the pastry all over with a fork. Put a rectangle of baking parchment, the size of the inside of the border, over the pastry. Weight it down with baking beans. Knock up the sides of the pastry by holding a small knife at a right angle to the pastry and making small indentations to release the layers. This will give you a better rise. Paint the border with the egg wash.

7.  Put the pastry in the preheated oven and cook for 25 mins, removing the beans and paper after 15 mins. Take the partially cooked tart base out of the oven and, if the centre has risen, gently flatten it with the back of a wooden spoon. Turn the oven up to 200C/180C fan/gas 6.

8.  Spoon the spinach onto the pastry, then put the squash and fennel on top. Distribute the cheese over the top, too. Put the tart back into the oven and cook for a further 25 mins. The cheese should be golden in patches and the pastry should be cooked and golden, but not too dark.

Recipe Supplied From BBC Good Food Magazine

Pumpkin and sage spaghetti

Pumpkin and sage spaghetti/Credit: Peter Williams

This dish is a marriage of the sweet golden pumpkin, which is much loved in Mantua and Cremona in northern Italy, and spaghetti

from further south.

Ready in 35-45 minutes

Serves 4

Suitable for vegetarians


  • 800g/1lb 12oz pumpkin flesh, chopped into small cubes
  • 1 tsp golden caster sugar
  • 100g/4oz butter
  • Small bunch sage leaves, about
  • 20, roughly chopped
  • 350g/12oz dried spaghetti
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 50g/2oz parmesan, grated


1. Tip the pumpkin into a medium-sized saucepan that has a tight-fitting lid. Sprinkle over the sugar and a generous pinch of salt, then drizzle over 6 tablespoons of water. Cover the pan, place on a medium heat and steam the pumpkin, stirring every so often for 10-15 minutes, or until it is soft but still holds its shape. You may need to add a spoonful or two of water during the cooking if the pan seems dry. Set aside.

2 . While the pumpkin is steaming, tip the butter and sage into a small saucepan and heat gently until the butter is foaming, then turn on the heat. Boil the spaghetti in a big pan of salted water for about 10 minutes until just cooked. When the spaghetti is cooked, scoop out a little of the cooking water, then drain and return the spaghetti to the pan.


3. Put the sage butter over a high heat until sizzling, then pour in the lemon juice and let it splutter for a second. Tip the pumpkin, melted butter, 3-4 tbsp pasta water and half the parmesan in with the spaghetti and give it a really good stir. Season generously with salt and pepper and serve with the remaining parmesan to sprinkle over.