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The Haunting History of Halloween

Ah Halloween… the time of year when you can dress up in a spooky costume, eat plenty of sweets and chocolate and enjoy all things creepy and macabre. If you love Halloween you are probably already have an outfit in mind, are putting together the accessories for your next costume and planning a party to celebrate this dark and mysterious day.

But have you ever wondered where the origin of Halloween comes from? Why do we celebrate this holiday with costumes and trick or treating? When did it all begin? Halloween is a holiday that has been around for a lot longer than you might think! The traditions that we associate with Halloween including trick or treating, carving pumpkins and getting dressed up as ghosts and ghouls date back a very long way – hundreds of years in fact.

Let’s take a look into the haunting history of Halloween and see where the origins of this holiday come from:

Early Origins of Halloween

The name “Halloween” dates back to 1745 and is a term of Christian origin. It means “hallowed evening” or “holy evening.” It is thought that Halloween traditions are influenced by folk customs and beliefs from the Celtic speaking countries, many of which have pagan roots and are rooted in Celtic Christianity.  Some historians think that the holiday is linked to the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of seeds and fruits, or perhaps Parentalia which is the festival of the dead. However, others believe that it is more likely to be linked to the festival of Samhain which is an Old Irish tradition that signifies the end of summer.

This important event marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter – the darkest time of the year. During this time it was believed that the spirits of the dead could more easily move into the world of the living. The early Celtic people believed that these spirits were to be respected and feared and many people would invoke the protection of God for their houses. Offerings of food and drink were left for the spirits, known as the Aos Si and it was thought that the souls of the dead would revisit their homes. Many people would set a place at the dinner table or a chair by the fire to welcome these visiting dead.

In Gaelic and Welsh traditions, the holiday would also involve rituals and games that were intended to divine one’s future – especially in regards to marriage and death. These divination rituals often involved apples, nuts, smoke, ashes and fire. There was also a superstitious belief that if a young woman sat in a darkened room and looked in a mirror she would see the face of the man she was going to marry. If she didn’t see a face but rather a skull instead, it meant that she would die before she was married.

Trick or Treating

The tradition of trick or treating might have come from the tradition of mumming, which was done during the early modern era in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man. It would involve people going house to house in costume, reciting songs and verses in exchange for food. It is thought that these costumes were a way of imitating or disguising themselves from the Aos Si.

The idea of dressing up was practiced in a number of different places throughout history, including Wales where men would dress as terrifying beings called gwrachod. In Orkney and Glamorgan in the 19th and 20th century young people would dress up as the opposite gender.

In some parts of southern Ireland the costume would include a hobby horse. One man would dress as a white horse and would lead the youth of the village house to house reciting verses in exchange for food. If the household donated food then it would bring good fortune, but if they didn’t it would bring them misfortune.

A tradition was recorded in Scotland in 1895 in which people in costumes carrying lanterns made from scooped out turnips would visit homes in order to be rewarded with fruit, cakes and money. The practice of trick or treating was first recorded in North America in Kingston, Ontario in 1911.

Traditionally Halloween costumes depicted frightening supernatural creatures such as monsters, vampires, ghosts, devils, skeletons and witches. Over time in North America the types of costumes expanded to include popular characters from pop culture, fictional characters, celebrities and archetypes such as princesses and ninjas. Everyone loves to dress up for Halloween and parents will even dress their babies in miniature costumes - or sometimes even their pets!

Christian Influence on Halloween

Many of the Halloween traditions that we are familiar with today have been influenced by Christian practices and dogma. Halloween takes place on the evening before All Hallow’s Day, which is a Christian holy day. All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween) was a time of feasting during which Christians would have vigils and honour the saints and the recently dead who are on their way to Heaven.

By the end of the 12th century this celebration had become a holy day of obligation across Europe and it involved a number of traditions including ringing the church bells for the souls in purgatory. It was customary for criers dressed in black to walk through the streets while ringing bells and calling out for all good Christians to remember the poor souls.

In many parts of England, Austria, Germany and Italy groups of poor people and children would go around door to door during the All Hallow’s Eve and collect cakes in exchange for praying for the souls of the cake giver’s friends and relatives.

It was a common Christian belief in continental Europe that once a year on Halloween the dead would rise from their graves in the churchyard and have one raucous carnival. This “Danse Macabre” as it is referred to in France, has commonly been depicted in church decoration especially on the walls of the monasteries, cemeteries and cathedrals. This creepy dance was a reminder to everyone of their mortality and it would be enacted by Christian village children who celebrated the vigil of All Saints, which was the predecessor of modern day costume parties.

The tradition of the Jack-o-lantern comes from Irish Christian folktales and it is through to represent a soul which has been denied entry into both heaven and hell. In the legend there is a man named Jack who encounters the Devil. He tricks the Devil into climbing a tree and then etches a cross into the bark, so the Devil is trapped. Then, Jack makes a deal with Satan that he can never claim his soul. When Jack dies he is refused entry to heaven due to his life of sin, but the Devil also keeps his promise and refuses to let Jack into hell. He throws a live coal straight from the fires of hell at him and Jack places the hot coal within a hollowed out turnip to keep it from going out. Ever since then Jack has been wandering with his lantern to find a place to rest.

In Ireland and Scotland jack-o-lanterns were originally carved from turnips, but immigrants to North America began to use pumpkins because they were larger and easier to carve. These days a carved jack-o-lantern is a common sight as a decoration on the doorstep of many homes and they have come to be a symbol of Halloween.

Halloween originated in Europe, but it spread to North America and is now a very popular holiday there, celebrated by people in Canada and the USA.

Halloween came to North America with the Catholic colonists in Maryland and the Anglican colonists in the South, who both had All Hallow’s Eve as a date in their church calendars. As many Irish and Scottish people immigrated to North America during the 19th century this holiday’s celebration increased in the USA.

These days Halloween is celebrated all over North America these days by people of all religious, racial and social backgrounds. It is one of the biggest holidays of the year. In New York City there is an annual New York Halloween Parade which is the largest in the world.

Halloween is a fun and playful holiday these days, but it has a long and complex history that dates back many hundreds of years and is rooted in powerful religious beliefs. There are a lot of interesting stories behind the Halloween traditions we know and love. Next time you are dressing up for Halloween, going trick or treating or heading to a party, think about how these traditions have formed over the years and how Halloween has become the event it is today.