The History of Halloween
Halloween started with an ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain (pronounced sow-in) which took place on November 1. Samhain was a very important day to Celts, who lived in Ireland and Scotland. It marked the next calendar year, and it also was the day that all of the spirits who died that year could pass on. People celebrated with a feast and big bonfires.
The prior night, or the eve of Samhain, was fraught with superstitions. People thought the veil between the living and the dead was thin at this time, and believed that spirits would literally walk the earth! They left treats out like food to keep the spirits at bay. If they had to go outside, they’d dress up in costumes so that the other wandering spirits would mistake them for other ghosts and leave them alone.
This was a Celtic festival, so when the Christians came to England, the holiday and many of its traditions changed. To appeal to the Celts, who still wanted to celebrate, Christian missionaries simply renamed Samhain to All Saints’ Day or All Hallows Day. The prior night went from being the eve of Samhain to All Hallows Eve to Hallow Eve to what it is today: Halloween!
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Snap-Apple Night by Irish artist Daniel Maclise depicts Samhain celebrations.
A similar situation happened to the Christian missionaries in Mexico. The local natives celebrated a festival celebrating the dead in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar. As with the Celts, the local beliefs and holidays weren’t entirely abandoned when Christianity came around.
Now, locals celebrate the day of the dead, or Dia de los Muertos, on November 2 (though celebrations occur from October 31 to November 2). This holiday has its own fun traditions. Rather than decorating pumpkins, many people celebrate with orange flowers, or marigolds, and skulls. Many women dress up as La Calavera Catrina, or the lady of the dead, a figure who used to be considered a death goddess. People also make offerings at altars to help them remember lost loved ones.
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An etching of La Cavalera Catrina by Jose Guadalupe Posada.
Around the world, celebrating the dead and helping them to pass on is an important tradition. Even many cultures that don’t specifically celebrate Halloween have a festival of the dead. In August in China, locals celebrate a Ghost Festival by burning paper and offering food to spirits, for example. The Japanese celebrate the Buddhist festival Obon, which commemorates ancestors and often features floating paper lanterns. Many Christian cultures observe All Saints’ Day and Halloween. In France, people celebrate with a parade of ghouls, and in Ireland, there are huge festivals. But nobody celebrates the holiday quite like Americans!
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Now, we have lots of interesting traditions centered around Halloween, many of which started in England and Ireland. For instance, the famous jack-o-lantern began with an Irish tale of Stingy Jack, who played a trick on the Devil, and couldn’t go to heaven or hell. Legend says that he wanders the night with only a light to guide him.
To scare their friends, locals would carve out a turnip or vegetable and wander the streets, or carve a face to make them look like a disembodied head. Some people began to place their own lanterns in their windows to ward him off. The tradition emigrated over, and Americans found pumpkins to be the perfect choice for creating the Stingy Jack lanterns.
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Besides lanterns, there are many other traditions that Americans inherited from medieval England and Ireland. For instance, trick-or-treating began as “souling,” which was a form of begging, in which someone will pray for a deceased loved one in return for treats, and “guising” in which songs were traded for treats.
Many pranks were played on the holiday, so treats were given out in America to convince children and teenagers not to play tricks. Now, it’s a time when children can dress up in costumes and get free candy! We also tell stories about ghosts during this holiday because of the association with Samhain. Americans have made these traditions so popular that many people around the world now associate Halloween with trick-or-treating, pumpkins, and tales of ghosts.