To me, Halloween marks the beginning of the Holiday Season. I don't enjoy the scary stuff, but dressing up, candy and harvest festivals are fun. I missed out on a lot of this when I was young so I like to talk about the history of our traditions to dispel many myths and urban legends. This is a bit long winded, but I hope you enjoy!
The ancient Celts people celebrated Samhain (pronounced Sow-in) on November 1st marking the end of the summer and, some say, the New Year. The night before, people gathered together around a bonfire dressed in animal hides and heads. The costumes were worn to disguise them from ghosts that were believed to return on October 31st.
They believed that on this night the veil between the living and the dead was thinner making it easier for spirits to wonder the earth. The Druids (Celtic priests) also thought that they were able to better predict the future on this night. This was important because the people’s comfort and confidence relied heavily on superstition and predictions to get through the winter. They burned crops and made animal sacrifices to appease the deities to ask for protection during the winter months. At the end of the evening the people would carry a torch back to their homes and relight their fires with it as an added superstitious safeguard for the winter.
By 43 A.D., the Romans had conquered Celtic territory and brought with them their own holidays and traditions to add to the mix. The Romans commemorated the passing of the dead in a celebration called Feralia. This was celebrated on a day in late October. They also paid tribute to the goddess of fruit and trees, Pamona, around this time of year. The symbol of Pamona was the apple, and so the fruit played a roll in much of the festivities. We see this now as a symbol of the seasonal harvest and in our Halloween games such as bobbing for apples.
Christianity spread through the area in the 800’s bringing Christian views to the Celts and Romans. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV named November 1st All Saints Day honoring saints and martyrs. October 31st became All Hallows Eve and in 1000 A.D. November 2nd was named All Souls’ Day to honor the dead. The three holidays together became known as Hallowmas. It is thought that Christians designated these holidays on these dates to take over the already existing holidays, making it easier for the Celts and Romans to convert.
Halloween Comes to America
With the new colonies and Protestants in America came a more rigid culture. The holidays that may have been celebrated in Europe were not celebrated except for in some of the Southern colonies. European beliefs mixed with other migrating ethnic groups and American Indians brought forth a new brand of Halloween-like celebrations. Autumn festivals were prevalent and the whole community came together to celebrate the harvest, tell ghost stories, sing, dance and play mischievous tricks. This was a precursor to the holiday that we celebrate.
The Irish potato famine in 1846 brought many immigrants that followed Irish and English traditions. One of these customs was dressing in costumes and going door to door begging for money and food. Another was divination. Young women believed that doing tricks with yarn, looking over their shoulders into a mirror in the dark and tossing apple peelings over their shoulders on certain nights would show them the name or face of the man that they would marry. Other games were played by young women for luck so that by the next year they would be married.
In the 1800s secular parties became popular mainly for adults but for children as well. People were encouraged to remove anything scary or religious from their festivities. In the 1920s and 1930s communities threw town-wide parties and festivals. Vandalism was prevalent in the tradition of making mischief but was often taken to extremes.
By the 1950s the holiday closely resembled what we know today. Thanks to the “Baby Boom” generation, the festivities were held in homes and school rooms to accommodate children. “Trick or Treating” became a way for the community to stay involved. Vandalism was not tolerated and it was nearly non existent, as this had become a holiday for children.
The Halloween that we know and celebrate today is much like all of our other holidays. It is a representation of various cultures coming together and sharing what they know and love. The ideas that Halloween is a Satanic holiday or that it is a time for human sacrifices and kidnappings is stuff of myth and urban legend. Much of what we see as Halloween-related criminal activity is the work of people who use the holiday and the web of fear that has been woven around it as an excuse to do what they already intended. America is truly a “melting-pot” with “ingredients” from many walks of life.
America's brand of Halloween is often misunderstood and may seem different than other countries’ but it shares elements from all over the world.
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