In today’s world, Halloween is simply a night to dress up in an elaborate costume, get free candy, and dive into a world of the unknown (typically in our safe homes on a comfortable couch). The real reasons we celebrate Halloween seems to be lost to past generations and really, a lack of understanding or caring. Sure, what we do today stemmed from the past, but there is a very minor resemblance to the past and the true reasons of a fall celebration.
Our traditions began and were passed down from the old Celtic based countries. Many of these had more Paganistic roots (much like our “borrowed” holiday of Christmas). The basis of Halloween begins with the Irish traditional festival of Samhain. This festival was loosely translated into “Summer’s End.” Samhain occurred October 31 until November 1 and was derived from an ancient Gaelic calendar and really was a celebration of the end of the harvest season and the light half of the year. Simultaneously, it was a celebration of the beginning of winter and the dark half of the year.
During this time of year, those who celebrated also believed that they needed a form of protection and help for their people, livestock, and crops survived into the next harvest season. At the Samhain celebration, the faithful called upon their God to support them by offering food, drink, crops, and a certain sense of hospitality by opening their homes to these higher powers. In this time, those who celebrated believed that the border between this world and what they called the Otherworld was weakened and diluted. The thinning of the veil as it has become known was a part of Samhain’s celebration. Overnight, the wondering souls of the deceased, particularly the relatives of the villagers, would be welcomed into their homes and were shown this hospitality by the setting at the dinner table and a warm fire in the family fireplace. After this evening, the feasting and drinking would begin as a celebration to the passed and the hopefulness of a bountiful and protected future.
Games and rituals would be performed and enacted throughout the festival. This is where the party games of apple bobbing and roasting nuts began. These were parts of rituals which would tell the futures of those involved, particularly for their death and family growth. An apple was peeled and tossed over a woman’s shoulder; the shape of the apple peel was said to reveal her future husband’s first letter of his first name.
A man would toss two hazelnuts in a fire to roast them. One represented himself, the other represented the woman he yearned for. It was said that if the nuts popped and moved further from the fire that it was a poor match, but if the nuts quietly roasted inside the fire that the match was meant to be. Food could also be a fortune teller. Secret items were sometimes baked into food, being served to guests at random. Two prime examples of this are of a hidden ring and coin. The ring would represent a near marriage while the coin would stand for wealth and prosperity. Some other rituals included staring into infinity mirrors, breaking and pouring of egg whites into water, and the creation of bonfires. A woman was to stare into a mirror in front and behind her inside a dimly lit room. It was said that a face would appear in the form of her future husband. If instead a skull appeared in the mirror, the woman was to perish before she is wed.
Upon breaking an egg, a young woman would peer into the bowl until she saw a face, this was to be the face of her future husband. The bonfires, the smoke, ash, and flames were said to help protect and cleanse the individuals involved. This was essentially a mimicking of the sun and would help guide the celebrators through the long night and the winter to come. Over time the bonfire meaning was twisted and skewed including the prevention of the deceased souls form falling to Earth and even keeping away the devil by fighting fire with fire.
While celebrating Samhain, traveling throughout towns singing verses of stories or reciting poetry was ritualistic. This would be a small mimic of the offerings to God and those being serenaded would be expected to donate food in exchange for good luck in the upcoming year. If the family did not donate, they were said to experience bad omens and tragedy in the next season. Those who sang typically disguised themselves as their God or of the deceased. This was said to be a protection technique from both their fellow townsfolk as well as their God, just in case He did not appreciate or approve of their singing. As time went on, others (typically youths) would follow those who were singing and approach the house after the previous group left. Their faces would be covered with black soot and ash form bonfires and they would demand food and drink. If they did not receive any, they would cause mischief and curse the family. If it’s not obvious enough, this would eventually morph into our form of Trick-R-Treating.
While celebrating through the night, turnips would be emptied out and utilized as lanterns by carving odd faces in the sides of them. These lanterns were said to ward off evil spirits who made their way into this world by representing ugly and horrific spirits. These would grow into the tradition of Jack-O-Lanterns.
As time went on, the Celtic lands became highly contested as the Romans took over and then made way for Christianity. Over the course of 400 plus years, their traditions combined and twisted the original Samhain celebration. All Hallows Day began being celebrated on November 1 followed by All Souls Day on November 2. Vigils and prayer groups would occur the night before All Hallows Day and would truly start the original celebration of All Hallows Eve. During All Hallows Eve, Christians would return to loved one’s tombstones and decorate them with colorful flowers, draperies, crosses, and candles. Combined, these three days were considered Allhallowtide and would represent the time to pray to the saints and reflect on the recently deceased.
Christian influences also spread into the origination of Trick-R-Treating. As churches sprung up and opened their doors to the poor throughout Europe, they also helped open people’s hearts to those poor. The churches would create customs of poor children walking door to door to trade their prayers for what was called Soul Cake. This became known as Souling. This would take place over the three-day period of Allhallowtide. During that time-period, it was said that the recently departed would be allowed to lurk on Earth until All Saints Day so All Hallows Eve would be their opportunity to seek any type of revenge on their enemies before passing over to the other side. Therefore, while Souling, those who went door to door would dress in animals’ masks and robes so they could not be identified by those souls.
During the poor time-period of the Middle Ages, most churches could not keep up with the local demands for décor. Instead of spending money on wasteful decorations, these parishes convinced their congregation to dress up and stand outside the churches. These parishioners would also carve out turnips and display them outside the church as well as display old historical relics from former church goers and even, on rare occasion, former saints’ belongings. While these celebrations would occur, the church would open up its’ cemeteries for parties and guests to visit their loved ones in hopes of meeting up with them as they wondered the earth as the borders thinned during Allhallowtide. These churches would help carry on and transform the old Celtic traditions into dressing up in costume, carving Jack-O-Lanterns, Halloween parties, and even decorating for Halloween.
As the Christian Reformation took place, the church again altered these ancient traditions. The current church leaders decided that the lost souls of this time-period could not possibly be wondering the Earth as they had a direct link to Heaven or Hell. Instead, they deemed that these souls were evil entities. These entities would attack and manifest in non-believers’ homes and children. Along with these spirits came the ideal of witches traveling alongside them, provoking them and allowing them into certain homes. This is also where the superstition of crossing the path of a black cat is bad luck. These superstitious people believed that witches disguised themselves as cats to avoid being noticed. During the night of All Hallows Eve, churches would hold candlelight services and would ring the church bells for everyone who has recently passed, thus came the phrase “for whom the bell tolls.” These rituals were performed to help ward off those evil spirits and witches. Priests would also travel through towns blessing the parishioners’ homes and barns to protect them from evil and misfortune.
America was settled and the old traditions came along with the new immigrants, even though they had already been contorted and misconstrued. The initial Allhallowstide superstitions and rituals blended with those from the Native Americans, creating an entirely new tradition base. The most recognizable tradition was that of the All Hallows Eve party where settlements would come together to celebrate the changing of the seasons along with those curious Native Americans. Stories would be shared at these celebrations, mainly ghost stories, fortunes were told, and dancing and singing would commence. With pumpkins more easily produced and carved, the tradition of pumpkin Jack-O-Lanterns was born, and American legends were weaved. One of the more well-known and commonly told early American stories involves the Jack-O-Lantern itself:
After celebrating all night for All Hallows Eve, a man named Jack ventured home in a drunken stupor, all the while being followed by the Devil. Eventually, upon taking a rest, the Devil catches up with Jack, but he wittingly convinced the Devil to climb a nearby tree. Being a God-fearing man, Jack scratched a cross into the tree therefore trapping the Devil in the tree. Upon making a deal with the Devil as he can never claim Jack’s soul, he allowed him down from the tree. With this, Jack pursued a life of debauchery, depravity, and sin. After he dies, Jack is not welcomed into Heaven, but the Devil is also not allowed to take him to Hell. Instead, the Devil launches a Hell fired coal at Jack. Since he was dead and chilled to the bone Jack scooped the hot coal into a hollowed-out pumpkin to keep warm. As he wondered aimlessly, he decided he needed a lantern. Jack carved a few openings in the pumpkin allowing him to treat it as both a source of light and heat.
While many newly dubbed Americans were very religious and closed off, as more immigrants made America their new home, they opened the previously settled generations to their traditions. These immigrants were much of Irish escaping the potato famine, bringing their ancient Samhain traditions. However, come the 19th century, Autumn festivals became more common place in lieu of a three-day party but the actual celebration and holiday of Halloween was not distinguished across the young country.
As many Americans were still finding their way and making ends meet, come the turn of the season parents would send their children out to peddle for food or money to hold them over until the frost dissipated. Many children were forced to wear a sheet so their neighbors wouldn’t know who they were, and which families were poor. In payment for this charity, the children would pray for their neighbor. While time went on and wealth, money, and food became slightly scarcer, some teens would accompany their younger siblings, and instead of asking for a favor of food or money, they would demand it. These teens would scare their neighbors into giving them sustenance, in exchange, they would not vandalize their homes or property. In turn, in the years to follow, groups of families would get together and disguise themselves and chase off these mischievous teens while having a celebration of their own. During these celebrations, families would observe some of the old games like bobbing for apples and roasting nuts over a fire, unbeknownst to them the original meanings of them.
At the turn of the 20th century, communities were beginning to remove scary and startling decorations and costumes out of their celebrations allowing for more religious meanings to creep into the holiday. The mischievous begging for food and money died down and by 1911 the tradition we now know of as Trick-Or-Treating was born in Ontario, Canada. This tradition slowly crept into America and was first recognized in 1915 in large cities like Chicago and New York City. The first costumes were simply white cloths, like those used in the peddling a century before. By the 1930’s, the event of Trick-Or-Treating was publicized and became nationally recognized. Today, a common variation of Trick-Or-Treating is known as Trunk-Or-Treating where children don’t visit homes but rather make their way around to cars parked in a public parking lot, typically that of a church or community center.
Lost are the origination of the fall festival of Samhain. Instead, a more commercialized and family friendly holiday exists known as Halloween. Over time, ancient traditions and multi-cultured areas converged to create a multi-billion-dollar holiday that lost its’ original meaning and cultural importance. On the upside, Halloween still manages to bring families, communities, and a nation together to celebrate their long forgotten past and be someone else, if even just for a night.