The History of Halloween
By Andrew Ritchie
The air is crisp. The leaves have left a crunchy carpet on the sidewalks and pathways. The moon looms larger with each passing evening and children across North America find it increasingly difficult to sleep, in anticipation of one of the most festive nights of the fall season Halloween, of course!
But how did Halloween actually begin? Where did it originate? And how has it evolved over the years?
Human beings have been wearing masks for centuries, for cultural and religious purposes as well as for sheer entertainment. Masks and elaborate costumes were used by many indigenous cultures to ward off evil spirits on holy days, prevent drought or keep away the demons believed to be responsible for crop devastation.
Traditional North American Halloween celebrations, however, are derived from the Celts, a civilization that inhabited the region known today as Ireland, as well as parts of northern France. It is a culture that dates back to the 5th Century, BC.
For the Celts, the end of summer and arrival of fall was officially observed on October 31st and the New Year was celebrated with a festival called Samhain.
On the night of Hallows Eve, which precluded All Saints Day on November 1st, the Celts believed that the disembodied spirits of those who had died the previous year would resurrect themselves in search of living bodies to possess, which was said to be their only way of achieving immortality.
It was believed that the ghosts would do anything to trick people into letting them into their homes. As a result, people would only venture outdoors wearing hideous masks and costumes in an attempt to frighten away the spirits.
They would make horrible racket with anything they could find to keep the spirits at bay, and those who stayed at home were told to close their shutters and keep their fires dim, so as not to lure any wayward ghouls their way. If any ghosts did find their way to the doorway, a bowl of food was left on the stoop to appease them.
Several centuries later, on "All Souls Day" (November 2nd), early Christians would travel on foot from village to village dressed in unusual costumes to beg for soul cakes, which are small squares of bread and currants. This was called "souling." The more soul cakes the visitors would gather, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors, ensuring their happiness in heaven.
As early European immigrants began to arrive in America, the traditions of Halloween appeared in many regions of the United States and Canada, particularly the southern states where there was a stronger Catholic influence.
But as religious boundaries began to blur and cultures to mesh, a uniquely American version of Halloween was practiced. The first celebrations were community "play parties" on October 31st to celebrate the harvest, tell ghost stories and play tricks on neighbors.
In the 1840s, during the mass arrival of Irish immigrants to North America, the traditions of Hallows Eve were spread across the continent, making "trick-or-treating" a popular event on the last night of October. Adults and children alike took part in the fun.
Part of the spirit of Halloween is causing a raucous, so pranksters tipped over outhouses, painted crude designs on public property and smashed pumpkins, giving Halloween its notorious reputation as a time of vandalism and mischief.
During the late 1800s, however, there was a move to "sanitize" the festival by removing the representations of demons and ghosts, which were seen by the church as ungodly and were deemed responsible for much of the damage done to local property on that night. Villagers were encouraged by the local newspapers and newsletters not to wear hideous masks or ghoulish attire on that night. Instead, the focus was turned to celebrations of harvest and community, with fancy-dress balls, games and parties.
Because of their efforts, most of the religious connections to the holiday were stripped away and by the early 1900s it became a secular festival that saw town-wide parties, parades and cookouts, with little connection to the ancient Samhain rituals or souling traditions, which were linked with spirituality and, subsequently, Christianity. Trick-or-treating was not practiced during this period.
But the old traditions were gradually reintegrated into the holiday between the late 1920s and 1940s, only this time the practices shifted to children. During the conservative 50s, it was seen as unfashionable for adults to take part in trick-or-treating and it was left to the kids to dress up and scour the neighborhood for candy, money and other treats.
The idea of trick-or-treating is to either perform a trick for a treat, as the traveling soulers did, or for the donor to appease what looks to be an ensemble of ghoulish visitors by offering them candy, just as the Celts did by placing bowls of sweets on the doorstep to distract visiting spirits.
Today, Halloween is the second most commercial holiday in North America, after Christmas. Money spent on candy, costumes, make-up, party favors, pumpkins and other accessories bring in $6.9 billion each year in America alone. Halloween is also celebrated in Canada and many parts of Europe. In Britain its sometimes referred to as "Mischief Night" and hollowed out turnips are sometimes used instead of pumpkins for their jack-o-lanterns.
Did you know?
o The Romans adopted the traditions associated with Samhain for their own October celebrations, such as the day to honor the goddess of fruit, Pomona. The symbol for Pomona is the apple, which may explain the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples.
o In Ireland, and in some eastern parts of Canada, a form of trick-or-treating also takes place at Christmas time. People dress up in elaborate costumes and visit neighbors to sing songs and dance, as well as partake in games. The idea is not to be recognizable at all. The practice is called mummering and is viewed, simply, as a time to be completely silly.
o The story of the jack-o-lantern dates back centuries when it was said that a boy named Jack tricked the Devil up a tree and then carved a crucifix on the trunk, making it impossible for the Devil to get down. Because of his bad deed, God would not allow him into heaven upon his death and neither would the Devil. Jack was left to wander the world of the undead, but the Devil did give him a hollowed out turnip with a candle inside to light his way at night.
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