Halloween History and Origins

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As the masses disguise themselves in ghoulish attire and beg for candy, they should give Halloween meaning by familiarizing themselves with the holiday’s origins.

Halloween has become one of America’s most favorite holidays. Children and adults participate in fun activities inspired to scare and entertain on Halloween night, celebrated on October 31st. This year, instead of blindly following these rituals of dressing up in ghostly attire and begging for candy door-to-door, participators should educate themselves on the history and origins of this nationally-recognized holiday.

Halloween’s Beginnings – The Samhain Festival

Centuries ago, Celtic farmers believed that there was one day a year where the season of life met the season of death. The belief was that malicious spirits could rise on this night and walk amongst the living. Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night states that in Celtic Ireland, this day was referred to as “Samhain” (pronounced “sa-win”), meaning “summer’s end.” This idea turned into a great festival, where Druid priests would gather to determine whether or not their villages would survive the winter and have bountiful harvests the following spring.

The Halloween Costume Ritual

Today, many people know that Halloween institutions include dressing up in creative, scary costumes, but the origins of this ritual remain unfamiliar. At the time of Halloween’s formation, villagers would light a great bonfire and where disguises in order to bewilder and ward off the roaming spirits. Popular costumes today represent a variety of myths and legends including vampires, werewolves, witches, and goblins.

All Hallows Eve

Pope Gregory III, of the 8th century Roman Catholic Church, established “All Hallows Day” on November 1st, designed to honor all saints known and unknown, states history.com in their educational video, “Haunted History of Halloween.” This holiday is now known as “All Saints Day.” This was an attempt to distract pagans’ October 31st festivities. While this new holiday was accepted by the public, they did not see a reason to give up their previous revelries and decided instead to simply change the name to “All Hallows Eve.”

Potato Famine – Interrupting Puritan Ideals

The English Puritans, who had traveled to America, decided to leave many pagan rituals behind, including the “All Hallows Eve” celebration. History.com explains that it was not until a million starving Irishmen set sail for America, during a potato famine in the mid-19th century, that this holiday regained popularity. Some previous rituals were exchanged for the traditions established today. For example, the bonfire was replaced with jack-o-lanterns, originally carved from vegetables, such as the rutabaga and turnip.

Souling – Modern Day Trick-or-Treating Ritual

The trick-or-treating stems from the act known as “souling.” During souling, poor families would go door to door and pray for the dead in exchange for small cakes, as explained by history.com. It was not until the mid-20th century that this holiday was gaining a footing as an American tradition and the term “trick-or-treating” was first seen in print.

Halloween Today

From its Celtic roots, Halloween has become one of America’s most popular holidays. Children and adults alike will participate in the time-honored traditions of wearing costumes and trick-or-treating, enjoying parties and ghostly galas. Remembering the history of this beloved holiday can add more meaning to the festivities this year.

Sources:

  1. Rogers, Nicholas. “Samhain and the Celtic Origins of Halloween”. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  2. History.com educational video “Haunted History of Halloween,” narrated by Timothy Dickinson. A&E Television Networks. 1996-2008.
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