The History of Halloween
- By Jenna Maxwell
Celebrated yearly on the night of October 31, Halloween in the United States is characterized by trick-or-treating, costume parties, bonfires, carving jack-o'-lanterns, and visiting so-called haunted houses. Although this holiday is highly commercialized and often perceived as an excuse for kids and adults to dress up in costumes, there's much more to Halloween than meets the eye. Halloween, which is a contraction of All Hallows' Eve, actually has an interesting and rich history.
The Origin of Halloween
Halloween can be traced back a good 2,000 years to the ancient Celtic festival called Samhain. In Celtic culture, this festival signified the most important holiday of the year and indicated the beginning of winter. Samhain was a celebration of the end of the harvest. It was also a time when people gathered together and prepared for the winter. The Celts believed that during this time of the year, the worlds of the dead and the living overlapped. They believed that the spirits of the people who had died during the year would start their journey into the other world, allowing them to mingle with the living.
During Samhain, the people would sacrifice fruit, vegetables, and animals, and they would also dance around bonfires. Some say that these fires were made to keep evil spirits away and to prevent them from finding a body to possess, while others claim that the bonfires were lit to honor the dead as they traveled on. The costumes worn on Halloween as we know it might also be influenced by this time, because while feasting, the Celts would wear costumes, consisting mainly of animal heads and skins. The costumes were worn to either appease the spirits or to keep them away. Today, dressing up like ghosts and witches might be directly influenced by this practice.
Trick-or-treating today requires people to stock up on candy and goodies to give to the ghouls, witches, and ghosts that come to the door. It's believed that trick-or-treating stems from a 12th century practice called "souling," which originated in Britain and Ireland. During this practice, children would dress in black and go door to door, asking for food in return for prayers for the dead. Special soul cakes would be baked on this day, and church bells would ring to remind the Christian people to remember the souls of those who had passed.
Today, it's hard to think of Halloween without thinking of jack-o'-lanterns. It's believed that the association of jack-o'-lanterns with Halloween goes back to the 18th century, when people in Ireland and Scotland started imitating evil spirits and played pranks on each other. These so-called pranksters would hollow out turnips and carve scary faces into them to resemble goblins or spirits. They would make these carved turnips into lanterns and use them to illuminate their antics at night. It wasn't until the late 19th century when turnips were replaced with pumpkins, which were found to be larger, softer, and easier to carve.
Halloween in the U.S.
Halloween was introduced in North America during the 19th century by Scottish and Irish immigrants. Initially, it was still greatly confined to the immigrant communities within the country, but it gradually spread into mainstream society. In the 1930s, when trick-or-treating gained popularity, Halloween costumes started appearing in American stores. People of all racial, social, and religious backgrounds celebrated Halloween by the first decade of the 20th century. Today, costumes worn on Halloween don't just mimic scary witches, monsters, ghosts, and devils, but they also include everything from popular fictional characters and princesses to celebrities and ninjas.
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