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The History of Halloween

The History of Halloween

history of halloween

How did this frightfully fun celebration begin? History shows the holiday's origins can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced "sow-in") or the Celtic New Year celebration that began on November 1st. It was believed by the Celts that on October 31st, the night before the New Year, the boundaries between the world of the living and the dead weakened, allowing ghosts to return to earth. Unfortunately, these spirits were known for their mischief, and would harm crops unless a proper ritual was held. Druids, or Celtic priests, believed to be able to predict the future during this time, would build huge sacred bonfires and the Celts would douse their own hearth fires and dance around the bonfire, wearing costumes of animal heads and skins to trick the spirits.

Once the Samhain celebration concluded, the Celts would carry a torch from the sacred bonfire and relight their heath fire, to protect their home against evil during the winter months. Legend has it that gourds, turnips and pumpkins were later used to carry the flame back to the hearth. Celts also carved faces in the gourds and mounted them on their doorsteps, leaving the flame burning in hopes the evil spirits would believe the gourds were faces of damned souls and leave the home in peace.

The origins of Trick-or-Treating and Jack-O-Lantern History

The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for "soul cakes," made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul's passage to heaven. The Jack-o-lantern custom comes from Irish folklore. As the tale goes, a man named Jack, a notorious drunkard and practical joker, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree's trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree. According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer. The Irish used turnips as their "Jack's lanterns" originally. But when the immigrants came to America, they found that pumpkins were far more plentiful than turnips. So the Jack-O-Lantern in America was a hollowed-out pumpkin, lit with an ember.

Bobbing for Apples

In 43 A.D., after the Romans conquered the majority of Celtic land, they combined the celebration of Samhain with their own celebration of Feralia, a day in late October when the dead were commemorated, and Pomona, the celebration of the goddess of fruit and trees. The apple is the symbol of Pomona, and more than likely is what led eventually to our own tradition of "bobbing for apples," on Halloween.

Halloween Gets Its Name!

In the Seventh century, Pope Boniface IV, attempted to replace the Samhain festival with All Saint's Day that was held on November 1st to honor the saints and martyrs. Still Samhain celebrations persisted, and All Saint's Day was then known as All-Hallows or All-Hallowmas, from the Middle English word meaning All Saint's Day. Eventually the celebration of Samhain was known as All-Hallows Eve, or Halloween.

Halloween Comes to America

As European immigrants came to America, they brought their Halloween customs with them. But because of strict Protestant beliefs in early New England, the celebration of the holiday was limited. Soon, however, European customs and beliefs began to meld with those of the Native Americans, and a distinctly American version of the holiday took shape. The first American celebrations included harvest festivals where neighbors would share stories of the deceased, tell fortunes, sing and dance. Colonial Halloween celebrations featured ghost stories and mischief. By the middle of the nineteenth century, autumn festivals were common but Halloween had not reached the entire country.

The custom of Halloween became popular throughout the nation in the 1840's, when Irish immigrants fleeing their country's potato famine came to America. At that time, the favorite pranks in New England included tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence gates. Taking from both Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go from door-to-door asking for food or money, a practice now known as trick-or-treating. By the late 1800s, Americans tried to make Halloween more about community than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft, so parties for adults and children became an important part of Halloween celebrations.By the 1920s and 30s, Halloween celebrations included the entire community, with parades and parties for the whole town. Unfortunately, vandalism began to disrupt Halloween celebrations. That trend slowed in the 1950s when the baby boom was in full swing. Parents looking for a way to celebrate Halloween returned to the custom of trick-or-treating, and a new American tradition was born. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country's second largest commercial holiday.

Halloween Superstitions

Some folklore tells of witches gathering each year on Halloween, arriving on broomsticks, to celebrate a party hosted by the devil. Some said that witches cast spells on unsuspecting individuals, transformed themselves into different forms (like a cat) and caused magical mayhem One superstition says that if you want to meet a witch, you have to put your clothes on inside out and walk backwards on Halloween night?then at midnight, a witch will appear.

There are many other superstitions associated with Halloween. For example, the Welsh believed that when you sneezed you blew the soul out of the body, which is where "God bless you" comes from. But watch out?if you sneezed on Halloween, it was especially dangerous because the devil could snatch your soul. And Babies born on Halloween were once believed to have the gift of second sight, which made them able to see and talk to ghosts and spirits. Halloween babies are also supposed to enjoy lifelong protection against evil spirits.

Wearing Costumes

In 1000 A.D., the church declared November 2nd to be All Souls Day, a day to honor the dead. Participants dressed up like saints, angels and devils and paraded through the town, starting the tradition of parading in costume.

Despite a continual effort on the part of the church, Samhain, or Halloween festivities, continued and eventually gave way to many traditions we associate with Halloween today.

As belief in spirit possession died out, the practice of dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches became something done for fun and not in earnest.

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