Halloween has been an official holiday in the United States since 1921 and is one of the most popular days of the year for small children. It evolved from the Pagan celebration of Samhain to what we are familiar with today.
Why Halloween Is Celebrated
Halloween is celebrated today due to the evolution of the Pagan celebration of Samhain to that of a secular one with ties to Christian influence. The origin of Halloween can be traced to the Celtic celebration of Samhain. Samhain is the celebration of the end of summer, which first occurred late in the fall in Ireland when the weather turned colder. This harvest celebration evolved into a religious celebration and a day to collect candy from neighbors. The celebration included leaving some of the harvest outdoors on the doorstep for the good spirits that walked amongst them. To celebrate, people wore animal masks and skins to disguise themselves from the bad spirits that might also be walking about. This celebration also heralded the beginning of the Celtic New Year.
A Pagan Celebration
Halloween began as a Pagan celebration. The purpose of the celebration was to give thanks for an abundant harvest and to celebrate the beginning of the New Year, which began November 1. Samhain was the original name of this harvest celebration - a Celtic-Gaelic word meaning summer's end. Due to some misinformation over the years, it was believed that this was a devil worshipping ceremony or one in which human sacrifice occurred. In fact, the only objects ceremonially sacrificed were animal bones and items from the recently harvested fields. They were thrown onto one or two bonfires in the center of the village.
In addition to the bonfires, some aspects of the original celebration that we are familiar with today include trick-or-treating, masks and carved vegetables.
Bonfires were important for several reasons. Primarily, they were used to burn sacrifices for the Pagan gods and goddesses. They were also used in a ceremony where villagers ran between two bonfires to bring luck and prosperity for the coming year. Finally, at the end of the celebration, villagers would take a stick from the bonfire and use it to light their own hearth fires at home. This was also thought to bring good health and prosperity for the New Year.
The history of trick-or-treating also began with the Pagan harvest celebration. The Pagans believed that all hallows eve was the one day of the year that the dead could walk amongst the living. Villagers would leave food out on their doorstep to appease the dead. This was also the origin of beggar's night. People would go door to door begging for "soul cakes." Over time, this tradition evolved into begging for candy and treats.
Costumes and Masks
The wearing of costumes and masks began as a way to disguise oneself and confuse the spirits that were walking among the living. The costumed people would beg for food and drink, sometimes acting up. Today, many people still enjoy costuming themselves on Halloween, even if they aren't trick-or-treating.
The original vegetables carved were the turnip and the rutabaga; the carving of pumpkins didn't become a popular practice until the late 1800's when immigrants brought the idea of carving vegetables to the United States. As legend has it, the carving began with the story of Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack tricked the devil into a tree and then carved a cross on the tree so the devil couldn't come back down. The devil cursed Stingy Jack, forcing him to walk the earth in the dark, with only a turnip lantern to light his way.
When the Romans ruled over the Celts, they merged Samhain with two other festivals:
- Feralia: A day to honor the dead
- Celebration for the goddess Pomona: A celebration dedicated to fruit and trees. It is believed that the Pomona celebration explains the bobbing for apples tradition at Halloween.
In the 600's the Roman Catholic Pope Boniface IV changed the date of All Saint's Day from May 13 to November 1. The word hallomas, meaning "sanctified," was used to describe All Souls Day, Eve of All Saints and All Saints Day. The Romans honored the dead on these days.
An American Halloween
The celebration of Halloween in America began with European immigrants. It began as harvest festivals or play parties where colonials celebrated bountiful crops in the fall. They gathered to trade ghost stories with each other and with the Native Americans. These celebrations also included singing, dancing and fortune telling.
Later in the 19th century, the influx of Irish immigrants into America helped spread the popularity of the harvest festival tradition. In keeping with Irish and English traditions, people dressed up in costumes and went door-to-door asking for food or money. This was known as beggar's night. It was also the beginning of today's practice of trick-or-treat. Giving someone a treat was an inexpensive way to avoid some of the mischief that would otherwise be played on a homeowner.
The fortune-telling aspect was also a part of this celebration and young women believed they could divine who their husband would be by using objects such as apple peels, mirrors and pieces of yarn.
A Child's Holiday
In the late 1800's, festival organizers urged communities to remove some of the scary components of the celebration to make them friendlier for children. This was the turning point where the harvest celebrations began to change from a neighborhood event to one focused on children.
In 1921, the first recorded instance of a Halloween celebration occurred. From there, the holiday was celebrated with trick-or-treating, community events and parades, which continues today.
The present day term Halloween comes from hallo 'en, which means eve of the sanctified celebration. Today, the celebration is coming full-circle back to its Pagan roots. Wearing masks, lighting bonfires, carving Jack O'Lanterns and begging for treats have all been taken from the Pagan traditions. Many people prefer to call this holiday a harvest celebration instead of Halloween.
Celebrate the Tradition
Regardless of how Halloween evolved, this night is a now a celebration for children and a nationally recognized holiday. Celebrate it by taking those practices and traditions that speak to you and help the holiday evolve even more.