The curious history behind some popular Halloween traditions4 min read
Now a night of frolic especially for children in America but now also all over the world, this autumn holiday is actually a mix of old rituals remembering the dead and celebrating the spirit world.
You may have found yourself wondering what is the history of Halloween, and why we celebrate it.
Well, although it’s a secular holiday today, the history of Halloween has roots in ancient religious and spiritual traditions that have evolved over time. The original Halloween, dating back to ancient times, was a pagan celebration called Samhain.
The ancient Celts celebrated this holiday right around the end of October into early November because it was halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. The purpose of the celebration was to welcome the harvest season as well as the “dark half” of the year. Another component involved honoring deceased ancestors and providing offerings to departed spirits; the celebrants believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead was especially weak during this time.
As the influence of Catholicism spread, the Catholic church tweaked many pagan holidays, including Samhain: the Catholic All Saints’ Day, which remembers saints and martyrs, falls on November 1, and All Souls’ Day, which honors the faithful departed, is November 2. The night before All Saints’ Day was called All Hallow’s Eve, which turned into “Halloween.”
First…why ghosts and spirits?
All Saints’ Day was actually originally celebrated in May but moved to November in the ninth century to incorporate the Celtic holiday of Samhain at the end of October. If you think about, it makes sense to celebrate the dead in autumn, when the leaves die and fall from the trees. Samhain was also the Celtic new year, the end of the summer and the beginning of the dark and deadly season of winter. At this time, the Celts believed, the veil between life and death was at its thinnest, and spirits may travel between the two worlds.
…and what is the origin of trick-or-treating?
Maybe you didn’t know that, during Samhain, the Celts offered food as a way to ward off evil spirits.
In the Middle Ages on the eve of All Saints’ Day, the poor would go visiting houses, offering prayers for the family’s dead in exchange for food, called “soul cakes.”
When Irish and Scottish immigrants brought Halloween traditions to America in the 19th century, trick-or-treating became what one historian calls an “extortion deal”: give us treats, or we’ll play a prank on you. As the vandalism became more serious, in the 1930s communities started encouraging trick-or-treating, but as we know it today.
Well. And why we dressing in costume?
To protect themselves from the (potentially evil) spirits that might appear during Samhain, the Celts wore animal skin costumes to hide themselves.
If they looked like a fellow spirit, they believed, it would be safe to go outside.
Curious fact, in the early days of modern trick-or-treating, the goodies weren’t necessarily candy.
However, after the end of sugar rationing in World War II, candy companies realized the money-making power of Halloween and today, the National Confectioners Association estimates 77 percent of Americans will purchase Halloween candy, spending $2.7 billion a year.
A big classic: carving pumpkins…
There’s a good mix of spooky in the story of jack-o-lanterns. According to the original Irish legend, Stingy Jack tried to cheat the devil out of his soul. But when he died, heaven didn’t want him either, so the devil cursed him to roam the earth using a carved-out turnip as a lantern.
Thus a tradition began of carving scary faces into turnips, beets, or potatoes and putting them in the window to scare away the ghost of “Jack of the Lantern” and other spirits.
That’s right, it may be decorative gourd season today, but the first jack-o-lanterns were carved out of turnips. However, when Halloween came to America, people figured out that pumpkins make even better jack-o-lanterns.
Also flickering flames are no doubt associated with jack-o-lanterns, but the fire in Halloween goes back to Samhain once again: As part of the ancient festival, a large bonfire would be lit to ward off spirits and lead them back to the afterlife. The Celts would then light their hearth fires for the winter from the sacred bonfire. If in the United States today, people generally prefer candles to giant fires for spooky ambiance, in England Bonfire Night on November 5 has actually been more popular than Halloween. Also known as Guy Fawkes Day, it commemorates the thwarted Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605 and is celebrated still today.
Did you know that outlandish displays of ghosts, spiderwebs, gravestones, and orange items aren’t part of the history of Halloween but they’re a relatively modern tradition?
Well, in the early 20th century, paper and party goods companies began producing decorations for Halloween celebrations and first lady Mamie Eisenhower decorated the White House for Halloween for the first time in 1958.
As trick-or-treating continued to gain popularity in the latter half of the 20th century, neighbors could venture from house to creepily-decorated house.
And, still today, Halloween decorating still grows with new traditions…
Images from Web – Google Research