Halloween has become an extremely popular holiday over the last 100 years and seems to only be picking up steam as time goes by. Second in popularity only to Christmas, Halloween and the associated customs and traditions that go along with it seem to be taking on a life of their own, and now Halloween is considered a fixture in most people’s holiday calendar. Dressing up in costumes, decorating houses and yards with Halloween decorations and of course, the beloved ritual of trick or treating make Halloween one of the most fun, looked forward to, and revered holidays by kids of all ages. But where did this holiday come from and where did all these rather unusual customs get their start? Here's a look at the history of Halloween and the origin of the traditions so many people enjoy today.
Halloween: An Increasingly Popular Tradition
It seems likely that many of the traditions that we associate with Halloween were brought to North America by the influx of immigrants in the mid 1800’s. During this time in history, many people from all parts of Europe were coming to make new lives for themselves in America. These immigrants brought with them many of their own traditions and customs that were familiar to them from their home countries. Some of these traditions were very old and had been passed down for centuries. Halloween essentially has become a mix of many European folklore rituals as well as Celtic practices.
The Festival of Samhain
Thousands of years ago in Europe, there were groups of people known as the Celtics. The Celtic people occupied areas now known as the United Kingdom, Ireland and some parts of France. These ancient pagan people were very superstitious and their lives depended on the growth of their crops and a successful harvest. A celebration known as Samhain began within this Gaelic culture to commemorate the end of the harvest or the days of light, and to acknowledge the beginning of the days of darkness (winter) and what to them was considered the New Year. This beginning of the Celtic New Year was celebrated on November 1st.
During the celebration of Samhain, these ancient people had many rituals, legends and customs that became an important part of the occasion. One primary belief during this time was that on the eve of November 1st, the souls of the deceased were released and were allowed to roam the earth freely. Some of these souls were thought to be evil spirits and it was feared that they would create havoc while they were on their one night sojourn. Some attributed various crop damages to these spirits and others worried that the evil spirits might cause sickness or other maladies within the village.
Because of the extremely superstitious nature of these ancient people, it became necessary to take certain precautions during “All Hallows Eve” in order to protect oneself from any evil spirits that they thought might want to cause harm. It became commonplace for masks or disguises to be worn during the festival of Samhain as a measure to ward off any spirit that might have bad intentions. It was thought that if one were dressed to appear as if they were already dead, the evil spirits might assume they were one of the ghostly spirits roaming about and leave them alone. These disguises were probably the earliest roots of what we now know as Halloween costumes. The darkness associated with traditional Halloween garb certainly can be grasped when you understand the roots of the dressing up tradition.
Another critical part of the celebration of Samhain was the lighting of large bonfires. These bonfires were thought to be a cleansing ritual for these people and various symbolic acts would be performed during the fires, such as throwing the bones of newly slaughtered livestock into the flames and other forms of sacrifice. During these large bonfires, many insects, rodents, and bats were attracted to the flames and the heat that was being generated by them. The clear association between bats and Halloween can perhaps be attributed to these early ancient rituals.
The Celts also are probably responsible for the ritual of carving pumpkins that is largely practiced at Halloween. The Celts, however, used turnips to make rudimentary lanterns, as they were readily available to them. They carved ghoulish faces into them, once again, to hopefully scare off evil spirits.
Eventually, the Romans would take over these lands and many of their traditions and customs melded into those of the Celts. A Roman holiday known as Feralia was a day when the Roman people remembered the deceased and commemorated their lives. This event took place in late October and eventually over time, the events surrounding Feralia combined with the Festival of Samhain. Growing Christian influences during this time period as well as the commemoration of church sanctioned holidays influenced these celebrations as well. Church holidays such as All Saints Day on November 1st (a holiday used to honor Saints as well as martyrs) and All Souls Day on November 2nd (a holiday used to honor and remember the dead) were widely recognized. Festivals and events similar to Samhain were conducted during these celebrations, which included bonfires and costumes. The celebration of the three events, All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day eventually became known as Hallowmas.
Jack O’ Lanterns
As immigrants came to North America, many versions of these ancient traditions came with them. Pumpkins, which were easier to carve than turnips and were more accessible, became an easy substitution to make carved lanterns out of. The legend of Jack O’ Lantern began with a bitter as well as miserly man named Jack that was a well-known and dishonorable drunk. Jack liked to play tricks on people in the local village and in his usual drunken state, enjoyed playing many practical jokes on innocent victims. One day Jack played a trick on the Devil himself in which he somehow convinced Satan to climb up a tree. Jack then surrounded the tree trunk with crosses, thereby disabling the Devil’s powers and trapping him. Jack made a deal with the Devil that he would release him only if he promised to never take his soul. The Devil had little choice but to accept the deal and so he did. When Jack eventually died, he was far too evil to go to Heaven but the Devil did honor his agreement with Jack, which kept him out of Hell as well. Jack was forced to roam the earth for eternity. The Devil was said to throw Jack a parting gift; an eternally burning ember, which Jack placed inside a hollowed out turnip to light his way through his eternal wandering. This legend, along with the tradition of carving out turnips (and eventually pumpkins) to make lanterns, is where the custom of making Jack O’ Lantern’s came from.
Trick or Treating
The tradition of dressing up in costume and begging for treats may go back as far as the Middle Ages when it was common during the Christmas season for beggars and the poor to go wassailing, a ritual which involved going door to door to ask for food. Another custom known as “souling” was common during the medieval days. On All Saints Day, the less fortunate would beg for food or money and in exchange, they would offer up prayers for the dead on All Soul’s Day.
When immigrants found their way to America, the ancient customs that surrounded these holidays and once had been common Irish and English traditions had a bit of resurgence. The new Americans began to also dress up in costume and go from door to door asking for food or money. As time went on, this practice became more and more commonplace at Halloween, except for a mild slow down during WWII when sugar (thus treats) became very scarce. Eventually both dressing up in costumes and trick or treating became very popular again and Halloween has continued to gain in popularity over the years. Today, nearly 40 million trick or treater’s (many will be children dressed in their favorite superhero costume) will be out and about on Halloween night asking the proverbial question, “Trick or Treat?”
From the early days of the Celtic people, morbid and frightening costumes have been associated with the holiday of Halloween. The Celts, thinking they were dressing to scare off evil spirits had a practical purpose for their dark and foreboding style of dress. Today the tradition continues, however, and Halloween will always be largely associated with supernatural beings, ghosts, skeletons and monsters. Over time, the costumes that are now worn on Halloween have evolved a great deal and in addition to scary as well as spooky creatures, it is common to see any number of whimsical beings, pop culture icons, TV or movie characters or even sports figures out and about on this night of dress up fun.
Halloween is one of the most ancient holidays and its popularity is undeniable. Understanding the roots of this most revered holiday will only enhance your celebration and will definitely make it more interesting as well as fun. It has been said that everything old becomes new once again. This certainly seems to be the case with the beloved celebration we know today as Halloween.