The History of Halloween
October 31st has a special place in our hearts for being one of the best holidays during our upbringing. Whether you enjoyed being scared to death watching movies and going to haunted houses, or if you simply dressed in the first costume you found to make your rounds in the neighborhood, you have to admit it was still a big part of growing up.
But doing your Halloween festivity duties doesn’t mean you know what for. In fact, most Americans don’t know the history of the spooky holiday we all know. It’s actually much, much more crazy than you might think.
The Origin Story
As hard as historians try, it’s hard to pinpoint the real, absolute origin of any specific holiday or tradition- Halloween being one of the many mysteries of history. Historians BELIEVE that the origins date back to the ancient Celts, people who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now known as Ireland. These people celebrated their new year on November 1st, marking the end of their harvest and the beginning of a cold, dead winter.
On the night before the new year, October 31st, the Celts believed that the two worlds, living and dead, became blurred. During this time, it was believed that it was easier for Druids (which was a Celtic priest, not a Dungeons and Dragons thing, sadly) to read fortunes and predict the future….as priests do. So, to commemorate the event, the Druids would build huuuuge bonfires and everyone would put on animal heads and skins and sacrifice animals to the gods. Just a regular friday night, honestly.
Changes in The Holiday
Fast forward a few hundreds of years, to the colonization of America (or at least, what WILL be America), as many different cultures fuse together as one, their own personal version of Halloween began to form. It was not very popular among many people, so only a few areas, such as Maryland, actually celebrated it.
These celebrations were different. Believe it or not, early Americans did NOT sacrifice a pig or two for those wacko Celtic deities, nor did they put on LITERAL HEADS OF ANIMALS. Instead, they had things called “Play Parties” to celebrate the harvest. During this time, they told stories of those long past (aka the dead. It’s gotta be scary folks.), told each other's fortunes, and sang and danced. The holiday didn’t become popular until later, when Irish immigrants flooded into America from the Potato Famine. Americans borrowed their traditions in dressing up and going door to door to ask for food, an early “trick-or-treat” that we know today.
In the late 1800’s, it became a completely family friendly holiday- much different from its Celtic roots. Neighborly get togethers, such as parties for both children and adults, started becoming a popular way to celebrate. Everyone wanted to make the holiday more child friendly- getting rid of the scary and gory themes.
So, Where Did Some of These Traditions Come From?
I personally have never gone to a Halloween party where they’ve gone bobbing for apples (I say that as if I’ve been invited to a lot of them, which we all know is far from the truth), but you always see them doing it in the TV shows and movies. Why, though? Who would want to dunk their head into water and bite for a fruit? Well, apparently, lots of people did.
It was one of the many fortune telling games that were so popular. The tradition goes like this; women would put their names on an apple, put it in the tub, and men would dunk their heads in to get an apple, seeing who’s name was written on the fruit. The women believed that it was fate, that they were absolutely destined to be with this person.
Another tradition has a rather...dark story to it. I’m sure we’ve all carved Jack-o-Lanterns at least once in our lives. We’ve all experienced that painful disgust when ripping the guts out of a pumpkin (unless you’re into that kind of thing). We carve funny faces into them and stick a candle in the center and put them out as decorations, priding ourselves in our work. But where did this tradition come from? Why would anyone need a lit pumpkin?
The story starts with a man named Jack. He was out one day, either on a walk, or just doing his regular deeds when he came across, you guessed it...Satan himself. Somehow, Jack convinced the devil to climb a nearby tree, and once the devil was there, he nailed a cross to the bark of the tree. When the devil told him to free him, Jack made him to promise that he would never take his soul. Once he had done that, Jack let him go.
This encounter with Satan himself started to make Jack arrogant. He boasted that he had defeated the devil, that he forced to swear that he would never take his soul. He became a sour person. Upon his deathbed he found that because of his actions and behaviors, the man couldn’t be let into heaven. Desperate for an afterlife, Jack went to his “old buddy,” Satan, and asked him to take him in. The devil refused, stating that the had promised that he wouldn’t take his soul- it was a part of the deal. When Jack refused to leave, he chucked a fiery coal of hell at the man to make him go.
And so, not accepted into heaven or hell, rejected by God and the Devil themselves, Jack was left to wander the world. He put the coal he got from the devil and put it into a pumpkin, making a lantern to light his path as he wanders the Earth, lost, and going nowhere. So...think of that the next time you put a candle into a hollow squash, or trapping and making deals with the devil.
What Can We Infer?
Values obviously change over time. We as people collectively started thinking “Hey, maybe slavery isn’t so good” and “Hey, bell bottoms are really ugly why are we still wearing these?” It’s the same for the people celebrating Holidays, and as Halloween IS a holiday, it is no exception to this rule.
As stated before, the Celts would often sacrifice animals and food to their deities, tossing them in the big bonfire. This had to do with their values of religion, and how much they depended on it and incorporated it into their lives. To them, “Halloween” (or Samhain) was an annual religious holiday.
With it’s dark and gruesome past, it’s no wonder Halloween had to change so much. During the 1800’s, people were tired of its gross and gory nature, and decided to make it more friendly towards everyone, especially children. This shift in tradition has to do with the values of the people involved, and they had obviously changed for the better.
How Does it Connect?
One connection I can make to World History in general is the fact that the Celts sacrificed animals to their gods. Many people did this back in the day, including the Mesopotamians and the Romans. With Rome, it was this whole big deal because Christians WOULDN’T buy the sacrificial animals, which was a big part of their economy. Eventually that lead to some issues, which makes it a significant connection.
In the End....
This spooky holiday had much scarier roots than anyone could have guessed. We went through the origins to the evolutions, the legends and the facts, all in all getting educated on an event we so blindly follow without questioning “Hey, what’s this thing and where did it come from?”