Halloween: a history
Posted on Wednesday, 31 October, 2012 | 4 comments
Columnist: Taylor Reints
Halloween is an observance that exemplifies the meaning of fear. On this day, millions of children will dress their scariest, hoping to get a taste of candy. But where exactly did Halloween come from?
Perhaps the oldest record of a holiday similar to Halloween was practiced by the Celts in an event called Samhain. According to the Celtic calendar, the beginning of the year started on November 1. They believed that on October 31 and November 1, the door to the netherworld opened, allowing the spirits of the dead to return to Earth. The Celts celebrated with a large festival and feast. Also, Celtic priests—druids—built large bonfires, where they sacrificed animals and crops to their gods. After setting everything ablaze, they extinguished the fire, and then they would try to predict peoples’ futures while wearing animal skins. They would then light the fire again, as they believed it would bring them safety during the new year.
Shortly after the death of Jesus, the Roman Empire expanded, and it conquered much Celtic land. The Romans combined Samhain with two of their festivals: Feralia and the honoring of Pomona. Feralia was a festival in late October that honored the passing of the dead. The second observance honored Pomona—the goddess of fruit and trees. The apple is the symbol of Pomona and may explain how bobbing for apples became a popular Halloween activity.
After the fall of Rome, on May 13, 609 C.E., Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Greek and Roman pantheon to honor all dead martyrs. A holiday—All Martyrs Day—was practiced every year on that day. Pope Gregory III modified the holiday to dedicate all saints, as well as martyrs, and he moved the holiday to November 1. He renamed it All Saints Day. Some people called All Saints Day All-hallows, from the Middle English word for All Saints Day alholowmesse. The day before All Hallows Day was called All Hallows Eve, which was shortened to—you guessed it—Halloween.
The idea of jack-o’-lanterns was first inspired from an old Irish legend. The legend tells of Stingy Jack, a greedy man whom invited the devil over for a drink. Too cheap to pay for his own drink, he coaxes the devil into transforming into a coin. Instead of buying drinks, he put the coin into his pocket next to a silver cross, which disallowed the devil to shapeshift back into himself. He let the devil go, under the condition that he didn’t bother Jack for a full year. The following year, Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree to pick a fruit. While Satan was in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the bark so that he couldn’t come to the ground. Under the condition that the devil leave Jack alone for ten more years, he let him come down from the tree. The legend says that shortly afterwards this encounter, Stingy Jack died. God wouldn’t let him into heaven and Satan—due to his promise—wouldn’t let him into hell. Jack roamed the Earth, then, with only a lantern to guide his way. In Ireland and Scotland, people made interpretations of his lantern on turnips, beats or potatoes, each possessing scary expressions to scare away the soul of Stingy Jack. Today, jack-o’-lanterns have evolved considerably, as most prefer their scary face on a pumpkin.
In the eighteenth century, Halloween finally made it to America. Although the celebration of this holiday was out of accordance with the strict Protestant beliefs of the time, it was still observed in many southern colonies. People celebrated the growing of the harvest, predicted fortunes, told scary stories, danced and sung. By the nineteenth century, trick-or-treating was popularized—mostly due to Irish immigrants—and Americans began dressing up in costumes, going door-to-door asking for food or money.
The origins of this ghoulish holiday go back dozens of hundreds of years ago, and yet, we find that this holiday has only changed a little. The superstition surrounding Halloween still exists, and a good fright can always be found on October 31.Article Copyright© Taylor Reints - reproduced with permission.