The History of Halloween

Candy bars, pumpkins, people dressed up like witches, skeletons, bats, and Frankenstein. It’s Halloween and if you’re not dressed to the nines in one of the scariest costumes you could find, then you are probably handing out miniature bars of candy and listening to chants of “trick or treat.”

  Halloween History

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Nearly every front window on your block has a gleaming Jack O Lantern in it some with silly faces, others wearing frightening expressions. With children’s costumes everywhere and bags of candy on every store shelf it’s easy to imagine that Halloween is every kid’s dream. It really is a school-aged child’s fantasy coupled with a sugar-induced high from all the Snickers Bars. If you think that Halloween is strictly a holiday for the younger set, think again.

The History Behind Halloween

Halloween is probably the oldest holiday that we celebrate today. Its deeply rooted pagan traditions and customs span centuries, going back further than the earliest celebration of Christmas.

The earliest festivals tied to Halloween are believed to have begun in what is now Ireland. Ancient pagan peoples known as Celts observed Samhain (pronounced souwen) at the end of the summer season. This day offered the biggest celebration of the year. Samhain signaled the harvest of crops and the important preparations that were necessary for survival during the winter months.

The Celts believed that the winter season began on November 1, so the previous day – October 31 – was the final day of summer. But October 31 wasn’t just the end of one season. It was also the beginning of something darker and a bit scarier. According to the Celts, on Samhain Night spirits of those people who had died within the previous year would come back to walk the earth. These walking zombies were everywhere and no person was safe unless he or she took precautions. The living feared that the walking dead might possess their bodies, so villages gathered together around large bonfires to honor the memory of those who had passed. They hoped that the bonfires would scare away the dead. They also offered gifts of fruit, vegetables, and animals to the pagan gods.

To ensure that none of the dead souls would recognize them, the Celts dressed up in animal skins as a sort of masquerade. They also set bowls of food out on their front steps so that if the spirits were hungry, they could have something to eat without disturbing the living.  

Many years later, the Catholic Church became involved with the celebration of Halloween. Around 600 AD, Pope Boniface proclaimed November 1 as All Saint’s Day or All Hallows’ Day. This new holiday would commemorate the lives of every Catholic saint. People were meant to spend the day in prayer at church. The underlying motive was to make Samhain less pagan and more of a Christian celebration. Since the pope and other Catholic leaders hoped to convert the pagan Celts to Christianity, they allowed some of the old traditions to continue, expecting that eventually, these customs would die out and the pagans would become Catholic.

The History of Trick or Treating

All Hallows’ Day meant nothing to the Celts, so the Church added All Souls’ Day on November 2 to its roster of holy days in the ninth century intending to lure Celts to Catholicism. All Souls’ Day was another day spent in prayer for those who had died, but this time, people commemorated all of the dead, not just those who were saints.

European beggars spent November 2 wandering from home to home and knocking on doors begging for soul cakes, which were a type of currant pastry. In exchange for the cakes, the beggars promised to offer prayers for the person’s deceased relatives. This tradition was known as souling and it was one of the early customs that led to trick or treating. But the Celts did not favor this Catholic holiday either.

Although the Celts didn’t celebrate All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day, their traditions were carried on in other ways throughout the centuries. The day before All Saints’ Day became known as All Hallows’ Eve and was later shortened to Halloween. People still believed that the dead wandered the earth on this day and they continued to set out small gifts and food to keep them away.

Eventually, these customs gave way to more modern ones. People thought it was fun to dress up in costumes, but they were not made from animal skins any longer. Instead, people masqueraded as the dead themselves, wearing scary get-ups of witches, ghosts, and zombies, and playing tricks on each other with the intention of getting a small gift or a treat. This custom, like the European soul cakes, eventually gave way to trick or treating.

The History of Jack O' Lanterns

People in England, Ireland, and Scotland often carved durable, hard vegetables like pumpkins and turnips and turned them into lanterns. Candles were placed in the carved pumpkins to make them glow. When this tradition came to America in later years, the carved pumpkins glowed as a symbol of the end of summer when crops are harvested.

An old Irish folktale was the first story to use the term Jack O’ Lantern. This long told tale weaves a story about a farmer named Jack who played a trick on the devil and asked that the devil never send him to hell. The devil agreed, but when Jack died, he was barred from heaven because he had not been a very good person on earth. Obviously, the devil didn’t want him in hell either. Jack had no place to go for eternity so he grabbed a pumpkin, carved it, and placed a candle inside. He wandered the earth hoping to find a resting place, but he never did. Storytellers called him Jack of the lantern which was later shortened to Jack O’ Lantern.

So, on Halloween night, as you are donning that black witch’s hat and snacking on your favorite midget-sized candy bars, remember that Halloween is not a new holiday or fad. It’s been celebrated for thousands of years and most of its traditions have stayed relatively close to the heart of the holiday.