A Brief History of Halloween

Danelle Smart - Staff Writer

Halloween is one of the oldest and most mysterious holidays. It also happens to be one of the most fun times of the year. It is the one day you can dress up as anything you want without ridicule; a time when you can admit you love the adrenaline rush you get out of scaring other people or being scared yourself without shame. For kids it’s full of frightening fun and bucketfuls of candy, and for adults-well, we all know what adults like to do. Either way, Halloween has become one of America’s favorite holidays, but do you ever ask yourself where it all started? What gave children the idea that it’s okay to beg strangers for candy, and why do we carve Jack-o-lanterns? Well, here’s a little story you can tell at a party to amaze your friends with how smart you are. On a dark and stormy night...

Just kidding. A long time ago, about 2,000 years to be more exact, there were people that lived in Ireland known as the Celts that practiced a common religion called Paganism. At the end of October, these people celebrated the Pagan-Celtic holiday Samhain (pronounce Sow-en) which represented the end of summer and the coming of winter. It was one of the two main witches Sabbaths of the year, the other being Beltane on May 31st, which celebrated the ending of winter. They celebrated the harvesting of the crops, and the changing of the seasons. Many scholars also believe that this was the beginning of the Celtic year, so this would have also been like a New Year’s Eve party. Because winter was coming on, plants were dying, and the nights were getting longer, they believed that on this night, the veil between the world of the living and the land of the dead got thinner, and spirits of deceased ancestors were allowed back on earth to visit their kin.

To welcome the spirits (or ward them off, it’s not quite clear), people would wear masks that resembled the deceased. They would light bonfires to help guide the spirits on their journey to the otherworld, and set out extra food for them at the table. On Samhain, people gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables to appease the gods for the coming winter (this is one tradition I hope nobody still practices), and because of the joining of the two worlds, witches believed charms, potions, and predictions were extra powerful on this day. There are many stories of trick-or-treating and jack-o-lantern traditions being started around this time also, but we’ll get to that later. So how did Samhain become Halloween?

It is said that in the 8th century, A.D., with Christianity taking over, Pope Gregory III decided to move All Saints Day, which is a Christian holiday created to honor Saints that originally fell in May, to November 1st. It was somewhat of a novel approach to incorporate the native people’s beliefs and convert them to Christianity rather that just take over, however it did not stick. People continued to celebrate the holiday, however I think over time, people forgot what they were celebrating and started doing it just for fun. All Saints Day was also termed a “holy” day, and another term for holy is hallowed. This is how Samhain turned into All Hallows Eve (holy evening) which eventually got slurred into Halloween. There is also the Catholic holiday of All Soul’s Day which was created to honor the dead and fell on November 2nd. In Mexico they took All Saint’s and All Soul’s day, and blended them with their own Aztec and Mayan traditions to create a three day celebration called Los Dias de los Muertos, or The Days of The Dead. Although this holiday resembles Halloween a lot, I think they take it more seriously as a day of honoring the dead. They leave out gifts for the deceased, and visit graves of loved ones to clean and decorate them. But that is another topic, let’s get back to the Halloween we all know and love.

So you can see where we get the traditional witch image from, even though it is a false misconception that witches are evil and ugly. The word witch actually means “wise one”, as they knew more about herbs and natural medicines and charms than the average person. However, they did cook over fires with cauldrons as we often see today. Black cats became associated with Halloween and an all around symbol for bad luck because cats have always been seen as magical beings, in many different cultures (just look at the Egyptians). The Druids (Celtic priests) believed cats to be humans that had been transformed by supernatural forces, and black just seems to be the international color of evil.

Trick-or-treating is a concept that apparently started in the old days of Samhain. It is said that people believed that the faeries who roamed the earth on this night were very mischievous. They would dress in masks so people wouldn’t know what they really were, and go around begging for treats. Those who gave treats were rewarded, and those who did not were “tricked” to put it nicely. Another story is that the Druids themselves would go door to door begging for food and money for the Celtic House of Worship. People were scared that if they didn’t give anything, the gods would give them misfortune. After the incorporating of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, children would go begging for soul cakes, which was a simple bread dessert. For every cake collected, the child would say a prayer for the giver’s dead relatives, which helped the dead move out of purgatory into heaven.

The tradition of carving Jack-o-lanterns also has a long history. All we know for sure is that they used to be made out of hallowed out turnips instead of pumpkins, and an ember or candle was placed inside. They were either set up outside the house or carried around to ward off evil spirits. The name Jack comes from a story that once upon a time there was a man named Jack (also known as Stingy Jack because he was cheap) who enjoyed tricking the devil. When Jack died, he was not allowed into heaven because of his sins, but the devil wouldn’t let him in either because of his trickery, so he was cursed to roam the earth, forever in limbo. As Jack left the gates of Hell though, the devil threw him a hot coal, or ember, which Jack placed in a hollowed out turnip which he used as a lantern. Today his spirit still roams the earth, trying to find a resting place.

I think most other things we can tell how they got associated with Halloween just because they are spooky or creepy. Unfortunately, most of Halloween’s history is still up for debate because it wasn’t recorded for centuries. Some people say Samhain originated in the British Isles instead of Ireland. Some say it was a Gaelic holiday, not a Celtic, or Wiccan instead of Pagan. Either way, many people celebrate it today as good ol’ Halloween, and not just in America, but all over the world. Maybe you can even take solace in the fact that it was not originally meant to be an “evil” holiday, but one that welcomes change, honors the dead, and celebrates the living. So have fun and be safe no matter how you decide to celebrate.

Happy Samhain everyone! (er, I mean, Halloween).