History and Origin of Halloween: Our Scary Holiday Beginnings
Ancient History of Halloween
Tracing the origin of Halloween is not easy. The roots of our scary holiday go back thousands of years, nearly to the time of Christ.
As a result of this, it is impossible to actually know exactly how it originated and the steps it went through to get to the modern traditions of parties, trick-or-treating, and the costume-filled celebrations we enjoy today.
Nevertheless, there are pretty clear indications of those roots if we follow what is known of the history of Halloween back through the centuries. It all began with the Celtic people of what is now Britain, Ireland, and France.
The Origin of Halloween
Ancient Celts celebrated a festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in or sah-wen) some 2000 years ago. This was the equivalent of our New Years day as the harvest season ended and the dark days of winter began. Interestingly, the Celtic day began at sundown; the concept of the new year beginning as nights increased in length makes sense in this context.
The festival continued over 3 days (at least as we figure "days") with many of the traditions and ideas we have come to loosely associate with Halloween. The celts believed that during the period between the ending of one year and beginning of the next the boundary between the living and dead blurred and the veil was lifted, allowing spirits to freely wander the earth. In particular, those that had died during the year were now able to enter the land of the dead where they belonged.
Druids, the priesthood of the Celts, were able to commune with these spirits, resulting in a much better divination of what the new year would bring. Huge sacred bonfires were lit and all home fires put out; at the end of the festival, embers were carried back to the home to re-light the hearth fires there. The bonfires were very special, and lighting home hearth fires with their embers would certainly carry good fortune for the next year. Embers were often carried home in hollowed-out vegetables such as turnips, gourds or rutabagas (although much easier to carve, pumpkins were unknown).
Gifts of food were often set at the doorstep during the period to ward off the more malevolent spirits and help ancestors find their way. These gifts also kept the fairies happy and prevented mischief from them. Costumes of animal skins or heads were often worn at night to confuse the "bad" spirits and keep them at bay.
As the Roman influence spread through Europe, additional traditions entered the scene as well. The celebration of Feralia, commemorating the dead near the end of October, mixed well with Samhain. Pomona—goddess of fruit trees and in particular the apple—brought her own concepts and customs that fit in as well with the end of the harvest.
During this period the Celts of the day also adopted the Gregorian calendar, and the date of Samhain was fixed at October 31st, where it has remained to this day. The only real change has been to shorten it to one day rather than three, and to modify the "day" - remember, the Celts would have considered Nov. 1 as the actual "day" while we now consider it to be Oct. 31st.
Cats and the Black Death
Europeans of the middle ages had a definite fear of cats in general and particularly black cats. Primarily nocturnal, hunters to the core, they make humans uncomfortable. Often associated with witchcraft, cats are obviously evil. Cats often "see" things that aren't there, giving rise to the idea that they are seeing spirits and adding evidence to the known fact that they are evil.
Often tortured and killed along with their witch owners, cats were also routinely hunted down and killed with the result that the cat population was decimated during the middle ages. Cats are a major force in controlling the rat population; rats that carry fleas that carry Black Death.
It is very likely that humanity contributed in a very real way to the spread of the Black Death in the middle ages, all out of an irrational fear of a harmless animal we keep as pets today and almost revere on Halloween.
The Church and Halloween
Christianity began to spread across Europe, but there was a problem. The Celts stubbornly held to their Pagan beliefs, listening more to the Druid priesthood than to the church, and were not converting to Christianity in the numbers required. Something had to be done.
Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon on May 13, 609 and the anniversary of that day was declared to be in remembrance of the churches martyrs; it became "All Saints Day." In the next century, Pope Gregory III took note of the problem with Celts and changed the date of celebration to Nov. 1st and the evening prior to All Saints Day became "Hallow's Eve." In the 10th century Abbot Odela added Nov. 2nd as "All Souls Day" and the transformation was complete.
To understand the "why" and "how" of these changes we need to realize that the church was adamant about "conquering," or converting, the Celts. Holidays and celebrations have always been important to people all over the world; they are a large part of what makes our culture. It is far easier if the conquered subjects take up the culture of the conquerors voluntarily - by manipulating the date of All Saints Day and creating a couple of additional holidays the church hoped to bring the Celts more in line. The dates match, the underlying theme of the dead match - what more could be asked?
Unsurprisingly, the concept worked, and the two holidays meshed. All too well; few Christians today have a real celebration, in the sense of a party, on any of these days. The Christian celebration of All Hallows Eve has been completely submerged into the secular ideas of the day. Similar holidays can be seen in both Christmas and in Easter as both have picked up pagan rituals, although not to the extent Halloween has.
The church had other influences, too. Early Hebrew did not have the word "witch"; the term was introduced into the bible during translation. A more appropriate term today might be "fortune teller" (divination) or "medium" (communing with dead spirits), both of which were natural, everyday occurrences to the Druids. As both were abominations to the church, the practice was evil and forbidden. As the church expanded its idea of what witches were and what they did, it seems likely that the Halloween custom of bad, evil witches came from the church. A strange thing to see in a religious observation of All Hallows Eve, but when cultures mesh and grow into each other things like that happen.
Indirectly, the church may have given rise to the horrors of black cats, particularly on Halloween night. The pagan religions of Europe often tied directly to nature and animals, including cats. Enter the church, striving to vilify those religions, and stir into the mix that cats are sneaky carnivores and black ones are especially frightening as they disappear into the night. Consider that cats, especially black ones, are the natural companion of witches and it seems reasonable that the church at least played a part of making black cats a symbol of Halloween.
Divination and Halloween
This practice began with Druids, communing with spirits to determine what the next year would hold.
Later years found young women dropping apple peels on the floor to discover who their life's love would be, or throwing hazelnuts into the fireplace. Apple peels were tossed over their shoulder, hoping that they would land in the form of their love's initials. Or each hazelnut was named with a potential suitor and the one that burned rather than exploding or popping would become the girl's future husband. Egg yolks floating in water might give a hint as to the future. There were lots of ways to divine what might happen down the road.
Later History of Halloween
Early US population had very little to do with Halloween; the Puritans certainly would have had nothing to do with such an abomination, and the Protestants (the majority of early immigrants) had nearly stamped it out in Europe.
Most of the celebrations in the early years were in Maryland and the southern states. "Play Parties" were an annual thing—public events to celebrate the harvest. People got together to share stories of the dead, dance and sing, and tell ghost stories. Mischief was accepted as part and parcel of the event. These fall ceremonies and celebrations were fairly common by the middle of the 1800s but were not formally a part of Halloween. Not yet.
The mid-1800s, however, saw a large influx of Irish immigrants, and the Halloween custom had lived on in the land of Samhain. The Irish immigrants brought the custom with them and people, always ready for a party, accepted it, and expanded on it. Combining the customs from various cultures as well as what was already present in American, people began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food.
By the end of the century, the celebrations and parties were common enough that formal efforts began to be made to promote it into a family and community event. Parties for adults and children alike were enjoyed by all and Halloween lost what little was left of it's superstitious and religious origins.
As the twentieth century progress into the '20s and '30s, the custom had grown into a secular, community affair, with costumes and parades, but vandalism began to raise it's head as well. Community leaders worked on this, and by the 1950s it was pretty well curbed, and Halloween gained in popularity as a result. Increasing populations had forced the parties from community centers into homes and classrooms and Trick Or Treating was accepted nearly everywhere.
The last few decades have seen an enormous growth in the economics of Halloween; it is second only to Christmas in its ability to generate income for businesses. Halloween costume parties are becoming ever more popular, and those scary costumes can be astronomical in their price. Candy sales are huge, and even more is being spent on children's parties.
"Souling," or "Guising"—Predecessor to Trick or Treat
Long ago, the poor would go door to door on Nov. 1st, asking for "soul cakes" in return for a promise to pray for the giver's dead relatives on Nov. 2nd, All Soul's Day. The practice was so popular that it was even referenced in Shakespeare's comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Deeper roots probably go even further back to the practice on Samhain of putting food offerings on the doorstep at night to placate the dead that were roaming the night then.
Guising was a similar practice, where children dressed in costume visited homes asking for coins, fruits, or cakes. Carrying scooped out turnips with candles in them for lanterns this practice is much closer to the modern trick or treating.
Guising is recorded in 1895 in Scotland and in North America in 1911 when the newspaper in Kingston, Ontario mentions children guising around the neighborhood.
Both of these practices probably had a part in developing Trick or Treating, and both probably come from the older Celtic activities, but in any case the practice had become commonplace in America by the mid-1900s. It spread back to Britain in the 1980s, not always with the blessings of the powers-that-be. Although the very early versions often did offer a real choice between Trick and Treat, it has become more just Treat, without any possibility of the Trick. Not to say that Halloween mischief doesn't happen, but it is no longer a part of the Trick or Treat custom.
Legend of the Jack-O-Lantern
One of the more amusing tales from the history of Halloween is the legend of how the jack-o-lantern came to be.
As the story has it, Ireland (where else?) was once home to a man named Jack O'Lantern. Now, Jack was not one of mankind's best examples; he was a drunkard, lewd, and a petty thief. Not surprisingly, Jack got into an argument with the devil one day and somehow convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin. Quick as a wink, Jack snatched up the coin and put it into his pocket. The same pocket that held a cross; the devil couldn't change back or get out! After much back and forth, Jack finally released the devil after extracting a promise that the devil would leave him alone for the next year.
A year went by, and the devil once more came after Jack, only to be tricked into climbing a tree. Quickly, Jack carved a cross into the trunk of the tree, again trapping the devil. This time the price of freedom was a promise to never take Jack into Hell
Eventually, Jack died but, being the man he was, never stood a chance of entering heaven. Poor Jack visited the devil, asking him to relent on his promise and let Jack into Hell but the devil refused. Jack was forced back out of Hell, but on leaving the devil flipped him an eternal coal from the fires of hell, and even today Jack still roams Ireland, carrying that coal in a hollowed-out turnip to light his way.
And that's where Jack O Lanterns come from.
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© 2012 Dan Harmon