The Origins Of Halloween

posted on 8/14/13

Halloween is one of the most intriguing holidays in Western tradition. It is the one day of the year when people can indulge in outlandish costumes, too much sugar, and superstitious revelry without shame. Modern celebrations of this autumn holiday include trick-or-treating for children, drunken debauchery for adults, and telling of ghost stories for people of all ages. Most people are not aware of the changes that Halloween has undergone since its ancient beginnings.

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The roots of this spooky holiday go back 2,000 years to the Celtic culture in what is now Ireland and the United Kingdom. Back then, pagan rituals were a common way of securing good fortune for an agricultural community. The end of summer and beginning of winter was commemorated with a festival called “Samhain” (pronounced sow-in). Being on the precipice between an abundant season of warmth, and a cold season of death, the ancient Celts thought this time of year was conducive to communing with the spirit world. Celtic priests, called Druids, would build enormous sacred bonfires around which people would gather. The Celts would dress in costumes made from dead animal heads and carcasses, which one can imagine were quite terrifying.

After the spread of the Roman Empire reached the Celtic communities of the north, some of their traditions were combined to create a more refined culture. By the 9th century, the Catholic church had begun to phase out these pagan rituals in favor of Christian-approved traditions. The church created All Soul’s Day, also referred to as All Hallow’s Day, as a holiday to celebrate martyrs, saints, and those who have passed on from this mortal coil. This celebration was also marked with bonfire parties and costumed parades. The Celtic tradition of Samhain continued to be observed on the night before All Hallow’s Day which was called All Hallow’s Eve, eventually taking the name of Hallowe’en.

When the first settlers came across the Atlantic to colonize America, the tradition of Halloween was mostly left behind. These puritans wanted nothing to do with some garish celebration of the spirit world. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Halloween was brought to America with the millions of Irish immigrants who came here to escape the potato famine of 1846. The giant bonfires of yore were replaced with small contained fires inside hollowed out gourds, which became the first Jack-o-lanterns. Around this time the practice of “souling” was taken up. Poor people would visit homes in their community and pray for the residents’ deceased loved ones in order to receive “soul cakes”.

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Spiritualism had taken hold of America by the mid-19th century, and communing with the dead via seances became very popular. People were concerned about seeing evil ghosts, especially on Halloween when they were thought to be closer to the living realm. Halloween costumes were worn as a protective disguise to confuse the vengeful spirits that were believed to roam the earth. Another safeguard that was put in place was the practice of placing food offerings outside the home to appease these spirits and prevent them from entering the residence. This practice, combined with the tradition of “souling”, metamorphosed into the modern form of trick-or-treating.

Today, the American celebration of Halloween has lost its religious overtones and agricultural significance. We dress up to have fun, not to hide from the spirits of the dead. Treats are dispensed to all who darken our doorsteps with their trendy pop star costumes and fake zombie make up without any requirement of ancestor worship. So go forth and revel in the bacchanalia that is the modern Halloween! Eat lots of candy, dress up in your most devious duds, and enjoy all the scary thrills that go along with this season of mischief.


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