WHEN I was growing up in the 1950s, Bonfire Night was a much anticipated event, with fireworks, bonfires, baked potatoes and parkin.

But over the years it seems to have been relegated by Halloween. Much of this has been due to its import from America, and the popularity of movies linked to Halloween. But its origins go back around 2,000 years to Celtic times.

The Celts had a festival called Samhain when it was believed our world and the spirit world came together. It was when spirits of the dead were reborn. Bonfires were lit to frighten away evil spirits. Celts dressed up in costumes to disguise themselves against being recognised by evil spirits, and to ward them off.

In the 8th century, Pope Gregory 111 proclaimed November 1 should honour all saints. Gradually, All Saints Day incorporated customs of Samhain. It is now celebrated on October 31 - Halloween. In America it’s part of the holiday season, with trick or treat and pumpkins.

As Christianity spread under the Romans, Celtic beliefs and culture blended into Christian festivities. The tradition of bobbing apples came from the Roman worship of Pomona, goddess of spirits, harvests, and trees. The apple is the symbol of Pomona. Eventually, the Christian festival of All Saints Day (All Hallows) took over, and the night before October 31 is All Hallows Eve - Halloween.

The idea of ‘trick or treat’, began in Medieval times when people went door to door offering a prayer or a song in return for food. It was known as Souling when Christians prayed for loved ones. Victorians would bake a soul cake.

It’s only in more modern times that sweets were given as a treat. Spooky outfits and masks are worn to scare away evil spirits, as the Celts did. During the 19th century when many Irish emigrated to America, they raised the popularity of Halloween, carving faces into turnips placed on doorsteps. They were replaced by pumpkins which became the American tradition.

Hundreds of years ago there wasn’t knowledge of or access to medical treatments. Women who prescribed herbal remedies, known as sage women, became well known for natural healing medicines. They sometimes acted as midwives, easing pain in childbirth with plant-based medicines. As Christianity spread, clergymen disapproved of women using such remedies. They believed only men and the Church should be responsible for healing. ‘Healing women’ were labelled anti-Christian and accused of devil worship. The word ‘witch’ comes from ‘wise woman’ - Wicca.

They became feared, accused of being responsible for ‘bad things’: sorcery, pagan worship, black magic. By the 15th century fear of witchcraft was firmly planted into people’s minds. In the 17th century anyone accused of witchcraft was tried by the Church, with gruesome punishments. It became a means of social control. The Church instigated aggressive witch hunts and hysteria was whipped up against women suspected of witchcraft.

The Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in 1619 were infamous. Samuel Parris’s daughter Betty, and his niece, Abigail, contracted a mysterious illness which caused fits and seizures. Doctors, with limited knowledge, concluded they’d been bewitched. Local women, who were often very poor or didn’t attend church were accused of casting spells on them. Nearly 200 people were accused of witchcraft in Salem, some were burnt at the stake or hanged. Wiccan’ holidays took place - the original name for Halloween.

In Britain witchcraft and Halloween were linked, there was widespread belief in witches. Witchcraft became a capital offence in 1542 during Henry VIII’s reign. Repealed five years later, it was re-introduced in 1562 under Elizabeth I. Thousands were forced to confess under torture. The most notorious Witchfinder General was Matthew Hopkins in the 1640s. Pendle Hill in Lancashire is linked with witches. In 1612, 12 witches who lived there were charged with the murders of 10 people using witchcraft. Ten were found guilty and hanged. One was farmer’s widow Alice Nutter of Roughlee near Nelson. She pleaded not guilty and remained silent throughout the trial. She was hanged, largely due to evidence given by a nine-year-old.

Around 2,000 people, mainly women, were brought before courts in England between 1560-1700, about 300 executed. There were no witch hunts in Yorkshire but there was widespread belief that bad harvests, sickness and sudden deaths were due to witchcraft. Edward Fairfax of Knaresborough believed a coven of six women bewitched his daughter.

Mary Pennal was accused of witchcraft by poisoning William Witham in 1593 with a herbal mixture. It is said her ghost haunts woodland at Pannal Hill near Castleford. Mary Bateman, ‘the Yorkshire Witch’, was believed to have poisoned victims to steal their money. She was hanged at York in 1809 in front of 5,000 people.

Not all witches were associated with evil. Mother Shipton of Knaresborough was known as a witch and soothsayer. Born around 1488, she foretold the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Fire of London in 1666 and the invention of iron ships. In Yeadon, Hannah Green, the Lingbob Witch (1765-1810) made a fortune from predictions. People came from miles around; the area around Albert Square was known as Penny Fool Hill because people parted with their pennies for her service.

By the end of the 17th century it was called into question that certain women had powers to call on devils to inflict harm. Few cases were sent to Assize courts and most were acquitted. In 1736 Parliament repealed the Act which sent witches to their death. Nonetheless, it is popular at Halloween today for children to dress up as witches and scare people.