The (Somewhat) Interesting History of Halloween
This month, happiness appears to come in the form of tons upon tons of chocolate, billions of those tiny candy corns, and caramel covered popcorn balls and apples. Halloween is without question one of America's sweetest holiday traditions with billions of American dollars spent on sugary delights. And what are you going to wear? The costumes have no limits including endless new ideas cropping up every year.
With all of the ghouls and ghosts running around hand in hand with angels and fairies it’s hard to really know why we do this, where “trick-or-treat” came from or how pumpkin carving became known as the best October American pastime to include heaps of giant squash guts, oversized knives, and a box of white wine.
Read on, friends, and learn how the happy holiday during which you gorge yourself on candy sweets has its roots intertwined with the dark winters of old Western Europe, the Druids of Celtic fame, and the Roman Empire who once had it all. It should be noted that this "history" was stolen from various Internet websites and should indeed not be used as a reference in any school paper. Dates, names, theories, and spellings should all be researched on your own time.
With that said, here is the somewhat interesting history of Halloween:
Roughly 2000 B.C.E. Celtic festivities began to permeate what is now known as the United Kingdom, Scotland and Northern France. The Celtic New Year began on November 1 st, signifying the end of the harvest year and the beginning of the cold, dark winter months ahead. On the day before the new year, the Celts celebrated Samhain (Sow-in) during which time they believed that the spirits of the dead returned to wander the earth and possess the bodies of the willing and unwilling alike. The Druids of the era built huge bonfires around which ceremonies of sacrifice and prayer to Celtic deities were had. Hearth fires would be extinguished so to make homes appear cold and uninviting to the spirits, while costumes, usually consisting of animal heads and furs, were donned to confuse the spirits of fleshy identity. Those Celts were clever, weren't they?
Following Samhain, hearth fires would be relit from a common source, the Druidic fire which burned in the middle of Ireland at Usinach.
The Roman Empire had conquered the majority of the Celtic territory by 43 C.E. In the proceeding 400 years, a cultural amalgamation resulted when two Roman holidays combining with the aforementioned Celtic holiday of Samhain. One of the Roman holidays is thought to be Feralia, celebrated in late October by the Romans, as a day commemorating the passing of their dead. Another would be a day celebrating Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. (The visible symbol of Pomona, the apple, is thought to have some bearing on why "bobbing for apples" is a Halloween tradition.)
By 800 C.E., Christianity had spread (aggressively) into Celtic lands. In what is regarded as a move to displace the pagan festival of the dead with a church-sanctioned holiday, Pope Boniface IV officially declared November 1 st as All Saints' Day. All Saints' Day, or All-hallows, was a day to honor all Roman Catholic saints and martyrs. The day before All Saints' Day become known as All Hallows' Eve and eventually Hallow Eve by the Irish.
Nearing 1000 C.E., the Roman church would make November 2nd All Souls’ Day to honor the dead. Together all three holidays, All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, become knows as Hallowmas.
Evolution of Modern Tradition
During All Souls' Day in England it became common practice for the poor to move from door to door begging for "soul cakes," small pastries, in return for prayers for the household's recently deceased. The tradition was encouraged by the church and eventually replaced the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for the wandering spirits of the dead. "Going a- souling," as it was referred to, was soon adopted by children who would visit neighboring homes in hopes of getting food and money.
The act of dressing in costume for Halloween stems from both Roman and Celtic traditions. During a time of widespread stigmatic spiritual dogma and outright fear of that which is dead the idea of spirits coming back to ravage the souls of the living was hardly a comforting one. People of the era believed they would encounter less than benign deities if they left their homes during Hallowmas. To counter any such spiritual mish-mash during the festivities, partygoers would dress up in masks, animal furs, and perhaps whatever else they could get their hands on to deter spiritual possession.
The story of the Jack-O-Lantern is perhaps the most fun of all Halloween lore. It goes something like this: According to Irish folklore there once was a man named Jack, a notorious drunk and town trickster. Jack was once able to trick Satan into climbing a tree and then trapped him in it by carving a cross in the tree's trunk. Jack made a deal with the devil that if he never tempted Jack again he would let him down. The devil agreed.
After Jack died he was neither admitted into heaven because of his evil ways nor into hell for tricking the devil himself. Rather he was forced to walk the eternal darkness with nothing but a single burning ember set inside of a hollowed out turnip. Poor Jack. No good trick goes without some manner of resentment. Later, American immigrants found that pumpkins housed embers/candles much better than turnips.
The boxed white wine came much later in the history of Halloween.
Halloween in the Americas
Rigid Protestant beliefs prevented widespread Halloween celebration in early New England times. However, during Ireland’s potato famine of 1846, millions of immigrants flooded the shores of the East coast, bringing with them the second most popular holiday in American culture. (In terms of monetary expenditures, of course.)
Young Americans began roaming from house to house on the eve of October 31 st asking for food, money, and other treats. The practice became known as today's "trick-or-treat" tradition.
By the turn of the century, Halloween becomes most commonly celebrated with parties for the young and old alike, defining it more and more as a purely secular holiday. Halloween began losing much of religious and superstitious overtones that helped shape the holiday nearly four thousand years ago.
Have a safe and sweet holiday this October! VM