The Haunting History of Halloween

Trick or treat?
Trick or treat?

We all know Halloween, October 31st, the night of ghoulish fiends, trick-or-treating, and costume parties galore. Amongst all this scary fun people might wonder where this tradition began. Halloween has a fascinating history that is long and varied and begins way back in Celtic times. The traditional Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-en), was considered to be the Celtic New Year and it holds the very roots of the modern-day tradition of Halloween. It was at this time that the Celts were wrapping up their harvest season and preparing for winter. This was also the day that these people believed that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead was at its thinnest, allowing the spirits of the dead to pass through into the living world.

Costumes tradition

The tradition of wearing costumes is tied up in this belief that the dead could come among us on that day. The Celts would wear scary, ghoulish costumes as a way to make themselves undesirable to the spirits, spirits that they believed would cause mischief or even worse. These spiritis might bring sickness or damage crops. On that night all people would extinguish the fires in their homes and it is believed that it was a tradition to have these fires re-lit from the central Druidic fire that was kept burning at Usinach in central Ireland. In general, bonfires were a traditional part of the celebration.

As time went on the Romans adopted the traditional practices of the Celts, but they combined these celebrations with their own beliefs and traditions, using them to honor their goddess of fruit, Pomona. Pomona was symbolized by an apple and it is likely that it is from this that the tradition of bobbing for apples became a part of our modern day celebration of Halloween.

Trick or treat?

The tradition of wearing costumes at Halloween has endured, but what about trick-or-treating. Where did it come from? In the 1840s the tradition of Halloween was brought to America by the Irish who were fleeing the potato famine. However, it was not the tradition of the Celts to trick-or-treat. Trick-or-treating is a Halloween tradition in North America for which the origin in unclear. There was a Christian tradition in Ireland and Britain called souling, which took place on November 1st, Hallowmas, and some believe the concept of trick-or-treating came from this. On Hallowmas Christians would travel from one village to the next and beg for soul cakes, which were pieces of bread containing currents. Every piece of soul bread a person received would represent a prayer that the beggar would say for the donor’s dead relatives on November 2nd, All Souls Day. Others believe that trick-or-treating was an invention of the adults and originated fully in North America. This was a way for the adults to bring the focus away from vandalism and pranks. The idea behind trick-or-treating is that if a treat is given, no trick would be played. Trick-or-treating really took off in the 1930s and has become a solid tradition in the North American culture since then. With ever-increasing communication and media exposure between countries, today’s concept of Halloween and trick-or-treating is beginning to catch on in many other countries around the world.

Jack-o-lantern

Jack-o-lantern or curved pumpkin
Jack-o-lantern or curved pumpkin

Of course, when it comes to Halloween, who can forget the famous Jack-o-lantern. The original Jack-o-lanterns were actually carved out of turnips by the Irish. One version of the story goes that Jack, who was a trickster, tricked the devil, trapping him in a tree by carving a cross in the bark and promising to let him go if the Devil agreed not to take his soul. When Jack died, he was not allowed into heaven or hell and was given an ember by the devil that he could find his way through his eternal darkness. This ember was placed in a turnip so that it would burn longer. When the Irish came to the Americas, they found more pumpkins than turnips and began using these as Jack-o-lanterns.

While it is not completely clear where some aspects of the current Halloween tradition originated, it is clear that the ancient Celtic celebrations were at the root of it. However, the spiritual aspects of the celebrations have mostly been lost in time. Instead, the current tradition of Halloween is full of fun and excitement as kids trick-or-treat, everyone has costume parties, and Jack-o-lanterns light up the night. However, it is nice to know that many of the things that are a traditional part of today’s Halloween celebrations stem from ancient traditions and had true meaning to those who came before us. And who knows, maybe the dead really do walk among us on the night of October 31st.

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