Holiday History - Halloween
Perhaps the most peculiar holiday on the American calendar, Halloween is an occasion that is steeped (fittingly enough) in mystery. It's one of our country's most popular holidays, with many people participating in trick-or-treating, donning costumes, eating candy, going to haunted houses, telling ghost stories, putting up spooky decorations and going to parties. Yet despite its popularity, the history of the holiday isn't often understood among the general population today. While most of our other holidays have a particular story or historical event to explain their importance, Halloween is much more enigmatic. What are its origins? Why is it celebrated on October 31st? Why the costumes, jack-o-lanterns and candy?
Well, let's take a stroll through the murky woods of history and see if we can clear away some of the mist surrounding this strange time of year.
The History of Halloween
A bit like Frankenstein's monster, Halloween as we know it today is a combination of traditions pulled together over the
courses of time. The starting point, however, can be traced back to Ireland and Britain, with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced "sa-win"). Meaning "the End of Summer," Samhain was observed on November 1st. It was the
day animals were returned from summer pastures, and it was considered by the Celts to be the beginning of winter and of the new year. However, this wasn't a happy new year's day, as the Celts also believed this was the day the veil between the mortal world and the world of the gods, fae and the dead became especially thin - allowing for the spirits to play tricks or bring ill fortune to mortal human beings. This was a very frightening prospect for the ancient Celts, and thus they would try to ward off any evil spirits by lighting bonfires on hilltops, taking the fire to their hearths for warmth and protection, and setting lanterns outside of their homes - often carved from hollowed out turnips. They would also wear masks to disguise themselves, and leave offerings to deter hostile spirits from troubling them.
When the Romans came and conquered the Celts in the 1st century CE, they combined elements of Samhain with their own holiday of Feralia - a holiday commemorating the dead and celebrating the harvest goddess Pomona. This in turn brought a more positive meaning to the holiday, with themes of abundance and celebrating the memory of those who had passed on.
All Saints' Day
Throughout the history of the Christianization of Europe, it became common practice to take local pagan celebrations and convert them into Christian holidays. Samhain was no exception to this pattern. In the 7th century CE, Pope Boniface IV declared May 13th as All Saints' Day - a day to remember all the saints who had died in years passed. By the 730's CE, the holiday had been moved to November 1st. The change was likely made due to people wanting to maintain their annual observance of November 1st, while also imbuing it with Christian meaning.
The day before this holiday - October 31st - was thus also considered a sacred day (or a "hallowed" day) as people prepared for All Saint's Day. By the Middle Ages, October 31st became known as "All Hallow's Eve," which in time morphed into the word, "Halloween."
As the Protestant Reformation took hold in places like Britain, Halloween began to lose its sacred associations, and was largely seen as a secular holiday by the end of the Middle Ages.
Halloween in America
As Christian colonists began to settle in America, there were points in time when it was forbidden to celebrate certain holidays of pagan origin, with Halloween being one of them. Despite this prohibition, colonists would still hold their own harvest festivals, and incorporate elements of Halloween into them. As time went on, and immigration to America from Ireland began to reach its peak in the 19th century, the celebration of Halloween saw a revival, and by the 20th century it had become a major holiday on the American calendar.
Since being adopted as an American holiday, Halloween has largely been celebrated as a secular tradition, with characteristics from the past evolving with cultural changes. The Celts' turnip lanterns have become our jack-o-lanterns. A time for fearing spirits and monsters from the otherworld can still can be found in our ghost stories, haunted houses, graveyard monsters and horror films. Yet there are also positive twists with stories, costumes, decorations and jokes poking fun at what frightens us. Mischievous spirits have become laughing children greeting people with a happy, "Trick or treat!" (or perhaps the prankster neighbor TP-ing your house, or jumping out of a pile of leaves with a loud, "Boo!"). Offerings left out for the fae have become chocolate bars, bubble gum and caramel apples for all holiday participants to enjoy. All in all, Halloween has become quite the fun holiday for all ages in the United States, and it doesn't appear to be vanishing from our calendars any time soon.