Halloween Through the Ages

For most of us, as kids, Halloween was our favorite night of the year. It was a time of dressing up and collecting all the candy that we could. For our parents, Halloween meant walking along with us on our adventure and paying the dentist’s bills once we had consumed all of our goodies.  Today, Halloween is the second-largest commercial holiday, trailing only Christmas as a moneymaker.  Over $5.77 billion is spent annually, while $2 billion is spent on candy purchases alone!  Over 50% of households put up some type of decorations, and 52 million individuals will dress in costume this year.  Yet how many people know the story of how this annual night of celebration and superstition came to be? Let’s take a look at Halloween through the ages.

The origin of Halloween dates back more than 2000 years to the Celtic people of what is now the British Isles. November 1st was the first day of the pagan New Year. The night before, the Celts would celebrate the festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). It was a celebration of the just-completed harvest and a time to prepare for the dark days of winter to come.  It was believed that on that night, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, and the deceased came back to roam the earth, causing trouble and damaging crops.  On a positive note, the presence of the spirits was thought to allow the Druid priests predict future events.  To ward off the evil spirits, large bonfires were built and crops and animals were burnt as sacrifices to the Celtic gods. Costumes, usually consisting of animal hides and blackened faces, were worn to imitate and appease the spirits, thus preventing mischief.  After the celebration was done, each family took embers from the sacred bonfire and used them to light the hearth in their home as a way to bring good fortune to all who dwelled beneath the roof.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.

By the 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted the older Celtic rites. In 1000 A.D., the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. All Souls’ Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. All Souls’ Day was the day after All Saints’ Day, which was celebrated on November 1. That celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse, meaning “All Saints’ Day”) and the night before it, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

In America, Halloween was first celebrated in the mid-Atlantic and southern colonies, where the first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance, and sing.  In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about community and neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks, and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes.  By the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was also revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats.

Here are some Halloween fun facts that you might not know:

  •  According to Irish legend, jack-o’-lanterns are named after a stingy man named Jack who, because he tricked the devil several times, was forbidden entrance into both heaven and hell. He was condemned to wander the earth, waving his lantern to lead people away from their evil ways. The first jack-o’-lanterns were made of turnips, not pumpkins.
  • The word “witch” comes from the Old English wicce, meaning “wise woman.” The early-known witches were dealers in medicinal herbs and charms and respected in their communities.
  •  Samhainophobia is the fear of Halloween.
  • “Souling” is a medieval Christian precursor to modern-day trick-or-treating. On Hallowmas (November 1), the poor would go door-to-door offering to say prayers for the dead of the families in exchange for soul cakes. One cake given, one soul saved.
  •  Harry Houdini (1874-1926), one of the most famous and mysterious magicians who ever lived, died in 1926 on Halloween night in a Detroit hospital. A séance is held there every Halloween to try to contact his spirit.
  • During the celebration of Samhain, Druid priests would throw the bones of cattle into the flames and, hence, “bone fire” became “bonfire.”
  • Teng Chieh, or Lantern Festival, is the Halloween festival in China. Lanterns shaped like dragons and other animals are hung around houses and streets to help guide the spirits back to their earthly homes, and treats are left for them to consume once they arrive.
  • Superstition states that if you see a spider on Halloween, it is the spirit of a loved one watching over you.

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