Halloween. Who doesn’t love a day where you get to parade around in costumes while laughing with your friends and getting tons of ‘free’ candy just by going up to someone’s door and asking for it? But where exactly did this seemingly innocent, sugar-filled day originate? And how?
It all dates back about 2,000 years ago during the Celtic Festival of Samhain. The Celts lived in the area that is now France, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. They celebrated their new year on November 1st, and the evening before, October 31st, was when the boundary between the living and dead worlds would become blurred. It was thought that the ghosts of the dead would walk the earth. Although these ghosts caused much trouble and damaged crops, Celts thought that the presence of these otherworldly spirits made it much easier for Druids (Celtic priests) to predict the future. These prophecies were a source of comfort during the long,dark, miserable winters. Druids built huge bonfires where people gathered to burn sacrifices (often crops or animals) to the Celtic gods. The Celts wore costumes, often made of animal heads and skins, while attempting to tell each other’s fortunes during such celebrations. When Romans conquered the Celtic territory by 43 C.E, they incorporated Feralia, their day to honor the dead, with traditions from the Festival of Samhain (ah, yes, good old cultural diffusion.)
The Romans also managed to add All Saints’ Day to the mix. What would a good Roman Christian holiday be without a little martyrdom? Pope Boniface lV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to all martyrs on May 13th, 609 C.E. The day, deemed All Saints’ Day, was later moved to November 1st. So how does this tie into to Halloween? Well, the name Halloween itself comes from a nickname for All Saints’ Day. The celebration was often called All-hallows or All-hallowmas, from the Middle English word for All Saints’ Day, Alholowmesse. The night before came to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. All Saints’ Day was celebrated very similarly to the Festival of Samhain with big bonfires, parades, and costumes of angels, devils, and saints. Obviously, we celebrate Halloween a little differently today (okay, maybe a lot) than the Celts did back during the Festival of Samhain. So what exactly happened to get Halloween to the way it is today?
Over the years, Halloween has definitely had its ups and downs. When Halloween came to America, only the people in the Southern colonies and Maryland celebrated (Protestant belief systems were so rigid in the New England colonies that a holiday that originated with the intention of worshipping deities and summoning spirits would not have been allowed.) Those that did celebrate Halloween did so by telling stories, dancing, and singing. In the 1800s, the tradition of trick-or-treating came about. People would dress up and go door to door, asking for food or money. Later on in the 1800s, there was a move to put the focus of Halloween more on community building rather than the ghosts, pranks, witches, etc. Parents were encouraged by newspapers to take away anything grotesque and frightening from celebrations. Because of this, many of the religious connotations associated with Halloween were subdued greatly. That did not last, however, because modern traditions are scarier and very superstitious. For example, our ghosts are more fearsome and ill-intending than the Celtic ghosts. We also have the superstition of black cats, which we can trace back to the Middle Ages. Remember back when Europe and, as the colonists moved over, some of America were so obsessed with witches? Yeah, witches were thought to turn themselves into black cats to avoid detection. Oh, and you can’t forget about the legend surrounding Jack-O-Lanterns. It turns out that our beloved pumpkin carving tradition started out with an old drunkard. Yep, an old drunkard. Stingy Jack was an old drunk who enjoyed playing pranks and tricks. One night, he tricked the devil into climbing an apple tree and surrounded it with crosses so the devil couldn’t come down. Jack allowed the devil to escape on one condition, one that would be his eternal regret- the devil couldn’t take his soul when died. Well, Jack proceeded to be a jerk the rest of his life so, when he did die, he couldn’t get into Heaven. What does a poor soul do when he can’t get into Heaven? Try Hell of course! Unfortunately for Jack, the devil couldn’t take his soul because of their earlier agreement. Jack asked the devil what he could do, since neither heaven nor hell would take him. The devil responded by hurling a fiery piece of coal from hell. Jack carved out a turnip to put the burning piece of coal in to act as a lantern as he wandered in limbo. Turnips were Jack’s favorite food, so naturally Jack had one in his pocket because, you know, who doesn’t constantly carry around their favorite food (oh, that reminds me; I forgot to get that taco out of my pocket before putting it in the washing machine)? On Halloween, the Irish would hollow out turnips, potatoes, beets, and rutabagas and place a light in them to keep Stingy Jack away, as well as ward off evil spirits. These were the original Jack-O-Lanterns. In the 1800s, a wave of Irish immigrants came to America, attempting to escape the Irish Potato Famine. They quickly discovered that pumpkins were bigger and easier to carve, so they made the switch. The tradition lives on today.
Today, Halloween is a widely commercialized holiday. In fact, it is the second largest commercialized holiday in the U.S., after Christmas (Christmas takes the cake for, like, everything.) Americans spend an estimated $6 billion on Halloween a year. Yes, you read that right. $6 billion. This includes costumes, decorations, party supplies, and, of course, candy. In fact, a quarter of the candy sold annually in the United States is from Halloween alone.
Clearly, Halloween had many layers and a depth to it that is not conveyed in modernity. It has evolved over time, going from bonfires and costumes made from animals and fortune telling to parties and candy and costumes made from a variety of materials. Tradition certainly has an interesting way of manifesting itself, weathering strict laws, and trends, and religious influences/morales. Even when people in the 1800s tried to downplay it and tone down some of the horror and grotesqueness of Halloween, look who bounced back, scarier than ever before. Not all of Halloween is true, like superstitions of black cats and the legend of Stingy Jack but that’s part of the fun. In fact, Halloween is built on legends; the Celtic belief of the barrier between the living and dead worlds being blurred on Hallow’s Eve is completely is built on a belief, which may or may not be fictional. Really, many of our holidays, our religious beliefs are a combination of small truths, interpretations, and just straight up guesses. It adds sort of a chance or risk factor to life. It’ll be interesting to see how Halloween changes in the years to come, but I have a feeling it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.