Halloween. A time we all associate with candy and costumes. But where does the tradition come from? Like most American traditions, there is no clear cut evidence of it starting from any one origin, but rather a mish-mosh of various cultures.
The bulk of Halloween traditions come from the Celtic observance of Samhain, the celebration at the end of harvest. The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1st and viewed October 31st as being summer’s end. Around 40 AD, the Romans had conquered most of the land that had once belonged to the Celts and combined their festivals, Feralia and the festival of Pomona, with that of Samhain. Feralia was a day to honor the passing of the dead and the day after was to celebrate Pomona, goddess of fruits and trees. Both of these celebrations were used to celebrate the harvest and take count of the livestock and the amount of grain necessary to survive the winter. Also, Samhain festivals utilized bonfires that were considered the sacred fire needed to get through the cold winters. All winter hearth fires were drawn from Samhain bonfires.
In the 800s, Christianity had spread across the globe, and Pope Boniface IV declared November 1st to be All Saints’ Day, a day that is used to celebrate all saints, whether named or not. The celebration was called All-hallows or All-hallowmas with the night before (Samhain) being called All-hollows Eve, eventually becoming Halloween. In 1000 AD the Christian church added another day to honor the dead who had not reached Heaven yet, All Soul’s Day, on November 2nd. Together, All-hollows Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day were called Hallowmas, eventually morphing into the word Halloween as we know it.
Here in America, no Halloween celebration would be complete without dressing in costume. The Celtic people believed that on the night of Summer’s end (October 31st), the boundary between the living and the dead became more blurred. They thought that if they left their houses on this night that they would encounter ghouls and ghosts not belonging to the earthly world. So to avoid being recognized and antagonized by the spirits of the dead, they themselves wore masks in order to be confused with the other spirits. In the 19th century, children of Scotland began to wear costumes when they went out guising—visiting homes to be rewarded with cakes and other treats.
Costumes have gone from being supernatural figures such as monsters, ghosts, skeletons, witches and devils, to include a variety of other figures including princesses, ninjas and whoopee cushions. It is the only time of year where you can let your inner slut come out and not be judged; or dress up in a giant rubber penis suit and not be arrested. The first mass produced costumes in the US appeared in the 1930s.
Trick-or-treating is another staple of American Halloween culture. It has said to come from the medieval tradition of a-souling. Poor people would go door-to-door begging for food with the promise of praying for the family’s dead relatives. This evolved into guising where young people went door-to-door in costumes for treats. In the U.S., trick-or-treating as we know it wasn’t popular until the late 1930s.
No Halloween decorating would be complete without a jack o’lantern. The myth of the jack o’lantern comes from an Irish legend about a man named Stingy Jack, who tricked the devil by trapping him in a tree when Jack made the sign of the cross on the trunk. The devil promised to never claim Jack’s soul in order to regain his freedom. When Jack died, he could not gain access into Heaven for being a trickster; nor was he allowed into Hell. since the devil had made an oath. So instead he was given a lump of burning coal which he put inside of a turnip in order to roam the earth, the light being his only companion. In the times of All Souls’ celebrations, carving a turnip and lighting it was used as a way of remembering the souls that were held in purgatory. When the Irish immigrants came over to North America, the turnip gave way to the pumpkin since the gourd was more plentiful. American traditions of carving pumpkins were originally associated with harvest time and not just Halloween.
Many games and other Halloween fun emulate from traditional superstitions. Most of these games and fun revolve around a female finding a suitor. Women frequently used Halloween as a time to see who their future mate was. One such way was to pare an apple peel and throw it over your shoulder. Whatever letter it made showed the initial of the first name of the man the female was to marry (mine was an M). Another was for the female to sit and look into the mirror; the face of her future beloved was said to be shown in the reflection. If the face was a skeleton, then the woman was forecast to die before she wed.
Another fun Halloween game is bobbing for apples. This may have come from the festival of Pomona as she was the goddess of fruit. It should be noted that Halloween tends to fall at the end of the apple harvesting season when apples are plentiful, so this may just be a coincidence. It is said that whoever comes up with an apple between their teeth first will be the next to wed.
A visit to a haunted house attraction is essential in celebrating Halloween. No one knows exactly where the tradition comes from, but it is believed that the first of such attractions was started by the Jaycee organization (the youth organization dedicated to leadership training) to gather funds. Since then, haunted attractions have grown to include mazes, hayrides and theme parks changing their interior. The first such theme park to do so was Knott’s Berry Farm (becoming Knott’s Scary Farm) in Buena Park, California. I know (having grown up about 5 miles from Knott’s Berry Farm) that tickets to Knott’s Scary Farm were hard to get, and you were considered lucky if you had the chance to go.
In the 1970s, there was a push to take everything scary out of Halloween to make it a more family friendly celebration. Halloween has long since lost its religious overtones, but still there are some people in the United States who don’t celebrate the season as they claim it to be a pagan holiday. The Catholic Church itself has sanctioned the celebration, stating that there is no harm in children dressing up once a year as long as it is only for fun. Many churches choose to emphasize the traditions of All Saints’ Day. Most Christians believe that Halloween is nothing more than a secular celebration.
Whatever your beliefs, Halloween is a time to come together in celebration, enjoy the company of others, and celebrate life. Plus it is a whole lot of fun to put on monster masks and scare the crap out of babies. Happy trick-or-treating!