Do you know where our tradition of wearing costumes, carving jack-o’-lanterns and eating candies at this time of year comes from? It’s not as straightforward an answer as you might think.
Halloween’s coming, that magical time of jack-o’-lanterns, costumes, candy, and horror stories. Today’s version of this beloved holiday is filled with landmark rituals to which we are so accustomed that we usually take them for granted. Nothing screams Halloween like carved pumpkins, after all. But do you know why?
This festivity might not be as Christian as many people think. Its customs can be traced back to a wide array of different ancient traditions from all over Europe, some of which had nothing to do with Christianity at all. In fact, Halloween is the result of centuries of cultural combination and recombination, a blending and mixing of many populations, legends, and practices. Here’s the story behind one of the year’s most exciting celebrations.
A long time ago (over 2,000 years into the past), there was an ancient group that roamed what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the north of France. These people were called the Celts, and they are known to us for their deeply mystical mythology and symbolisms. Druids, runes, magic: we’re all familiar with their all-too-bewitching legacy. One of their more intriguing festivities was called Samhain (pronounced sah-win), which they would celebrate every year on November 1. This day had a deep significance: it marked the end of the summer and the beginning of winter (a time usually associated with death), and as such represented the Celtic new year.
The seasons passed, the world became dormant and prepared to reawaken in the spring, but during this time something else happened. On the evening before the new year, the Celts believed, the boundary that separates the living from the dead weakens and becomes blurred. Spirits cross over from the other side and, for a brief period, ghosts roam free across the land. A menacing atmosphere in the darkness of October 31 forced the living to take measures to protect themselves from the dead: they would build bonfires and wear costumes (typically made of animal heads and skins). Their night became a fiery display of the presence of the afterlife, a way to deal with the ever-pressing threat of death. Druids were also believed to have increased powers of divination on such an evening, so the Celts would spend a day telling fortunes and predictions about harvests, romance, and the end of life.
It sounds magical and captivating from the safety of our modern world, but it must have been terrifying for them, not least because, regardless of what they thought about ghosts, winter represented a very real threat to everything they knew.
Now, it’s worth noting that some scholars believe Samhain was never really about the dead and instead focused on the passing and rebirth of the seasons. Nonetheless, it was an important festivity that would be transformed and adapted into Christianity. And though the connection between Samhain and Halloween has never been definitely proven, many historians believe it’s unlikely the former didn’t influence the latter.
The Church and All Saints’ Day
Jump a few centuries ahead and you’ll see Christianity spreading all throughout Europe. The old pagan rituals were appropriated by the new monotheism, and their magical elements were turned into divine signs and stories of God’s miracles. By the eight century of the current era, Pope Gregory III had designated November 1 as a time to honor all the saints, both known and unknown. The festivity was officially named All Saints’ Day, also called All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas or All-Hallowmas (from Old English Alholowmesse, translating literally to “the day of all the saints”).
The liturgical celebration of All Saints’ Day begins on the evening of October 31, and as such, that night is known as All Hallows’ Eve. Eventually, that morphed into the word “Halloween.”
How Immigration Made It a National Holiday
Now let’s jump ahead just a few more centuries, straight into colonial times. England had parted ways with the Church and the celebration of Halloween was limited in the colonies due to Protestantism’s rejection of many Catholic festivities. But in time, as more immigrants poured into the “new world”, traditions mixed with several Native American rites and eventually a vague image of what would become American Halloween was sketched. Initially there were some minor customs here and there that would return year after year, which included sharing ghost stories, telling each other’s fortunes, celebrating harvest, and the fun of pranks and mischief. Soon enough all these elements merged into a more or less recognizable tradition which was, however, not yet popularized across the United States.
(Snap-Apple Night, Daniel Maclise. The painting depicts an original Irish Halloween festivity.)
This changed by the second half of the 19th century, during the time when millions of Irish immigrants, fleeing the potato famine, arrived on the shores. Due to their Celtic heritage and particularly drawn to Halloween celebrations, it was mostly them who helped spread the festivity throughout the country. By the time the Irish finished their exodus, Halloween had become a nation-wide holiday.
Incidentally, Irish immigrants are also responsible for bringing the jack-o’-lantern tradition into America. Up until the 19th century, vegetables were carved with grotesque faces across Ireland and in the Scottish Highlands during Hallows’ Eve and placed on windowsills to help ward off evil spirits (although in America the carved pumpkin tradition was originally associated with harvesting season.)
(A traditional Irish Jack-o'-Lantern. Photo by Rannṗáirtí Anaiṫnid)
Trick or Treat
Another tradition that came from the British Isles into the Colonies was that of “mumming” and “guising,” in which amateur actors would dress in costumes or simple disguises and go door-to-door to perform a folk play and ask for food or money in return. Eventually, the performance became optional, but soliciting food while in disguise stuck. This, combined with the season’s tradition of performing pranks, is a likely source for today’s trick-or-treating.
The practice could also be related to a medieval custom in which the poor would knock on doors to ask for food. On Hallowmas (November 1), they would offer prayers for the dead in exchange. Overall, “mass solicitation” traditions such as these have been practiced in some shape or form throughout history and have usually been associated with the winter—which is not surprising, given it’s a time of need for many.
Almost every civilization has had dedicated days or traditions surrounding the dead and the continual struggle for life. In Halloween, we see the culmination of how for thousand of years we have symbolized this struggle through some of the rituals we hold most dear. Now that you know how it came about, just remember our debt to the past and enjoy your candy!
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