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History and Origins of Halloween

Posted by admin On May - 17 - 2011

History and Origins of Halloween

One of the world’s oldest holidays, Halloween didn’t start out as a holiday for costumes, trick-or-treating or carving pumpkins.  The Halloween celebrated today has elements of several different religious and cultural traditions.  The name Halloween is an abbreviation of “All Hallows Eve,” a traditional name for the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day.

Halloween wouldn’t be what it is today if not for the Celtic holiday of Samhain, an ancient celebration of the spirits of the dead.  A Roman festival called Feralia is another Halloween inspiration.  Although Feralia occurred in February, it was a public festival where citizens made offerings and sacrifices to calm the spirits of the dead so they wouldn’t haunt the living.

The original Celtic holiday of Samhain occurred on November 1, not October 31.  Samhain was one of the most important holidays for Celtic people, and its festivals were conducted by their priests, the Druids.  On Samhain, the Celtic people believed that the spirits of those who had died over the course of the year would mingle with the living before traveling on to the afterlife.  In addition to the spirits of departed souls, other supernatural creatures like fairies and demons came out “to play” during Samhain.  Festivals and celebrations were meant to aid the good souls on their way, and keep bad spirits from doing harm to the living.  Samhain also celebrated the harvest, and foods associated with fall, such as apples, pumpkins, spices and cider, were part of the early traditional celebrations.

When Christianity arrived, the ancient festivals of the Druids and beliefs in magic and spirits conflicted with the new religion.  In 601, Pope Gregory the First issued an edict for missionaries that encouraged them to incorporate ancient religious traditions and holidays with Christian ones.  “All Saints Day” was invented to honor Christian saints, and was set on the same day as Samhain.  Many Druids, considered to be consorts of demons and witches, went into hiding.  Their beliefs about the underworld and evil demons were interpreted as Hell by Christians.

Ancient traditions were downplayed over the years, but they never disappeared.  “All Saints Day” was also called “All Hallows,” and the night before was “All Hallows Eve.”  People continued to believe that the spirits of the dead were on the loose, and “All Hallows Eve” on October 31, became “Halloween.”

People in England made cakes for the wandering souls on All Hallows Eve, and people went “a soulin” from house to house for the cakes.  Halloween costumes of today date back to ancient “mummers” who dressed up as spirits and performed for a reward of food and drink – just like “trick or treat.”  Although today, some people wear masks and costumes of celebrities, the most popular costumes for all ages remain ghosts, skeleton figures and witches, just as they were hundreds of years ago. Fall harvest foods and drinks enjoyed on Halloween date back to the original Samhain festivals.

One of the most enduring symbols of Halloween is the Jack O’Lantern.  Today’s carved pumpkin was inspired by the Irish legend of Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack tried to cheat both the Devil and God, and wasn’t allowed in Heaven or Hell after he died.  Instead, the Devil gave him a piece of burning coal and put it in a turnip and set Jack loose to wander the earth forever.  People began carving turnips and then pumpkins with scary faces meant to frighten Jack and other evil spirits away.

No history of Halloween would be complete without some information about candy.  Halloween is the biggest candy sales holiday of the year in western countries.  When did candy replace “soul cakes” or treats like apples or cider?

During the American pioneer days, frontier housewives began giving candy to the children “trick or treating” from door to door in order to prevent their house from being targeted by a “trick.”

The ancient Druids would recognize many Halloween traditions, from the costumes to the food and celebrations.  The Druids focused on spiritual and religious aspects of the holiday, and it’s likely they would be very surprised to learn that Halloween is second only to Christmas as the largest consumer holiday in the US, with over $6.9 billion spent every year on Halloween costumes, treats, parties and decorations.