Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Origins and History of Halloween

Discover the Origin and History of Halloween Traditions Trick or treating, dressing in costumes and masks and jack o' lanterns. All these customs originate from ancient traditions. Just why do we ask for candy on October 31st? Why don ghoulish masks and scary outfits? What is it with all those black cats? And just what is the significance of the Jack o' lantern at Halloween?

If you've ever wondered about any of these curious Halloween traditions, then read on for some of the more curious answers.

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Countdown to Halloween

Halloween's Celtic Beginnings

      The origin of Halloween can be traced back to Celtic times and an ancient festival called Samhein (pronounced sow-in).

The race of people known as Celts inhabited Ireland, Great Britain and much of northern France around 200 years ago. For the Celts November 1 was the accepted date associated with the end of summer. The harvest was completed, the days began to grow shorter and the long, cold, dark winter was nearing. Typically winter would see greater numbers of deaths than other times of the year. It was believed that on the eve of the new year, October 31, the spirits of the departed were able to enter the living world. This was celebrated in a festival called Samhain. The Celtic priests, known as Druids were believed to gain more power during this event, which enabled them to “see” more clearly and so make more accurate predictions.

Celebrations included lighting of bonfires where offerings of crops and animals would be made as sacrifices to ensure a bountiful year to come. People wore costumes of animal skins often complete with the head. Fortune-telling was an important part of the festivities.

At the end of the celebrations, the people returned to their homes to re-light their fires, which had been put out prior to the celebrations.

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I'll bet living in a nudist colony takes all the fun out of Halloween.
~Author Unknown

Roman and Christian Influences

The Romans brought with them two festivals which they incorporated into the Celtic celebrations. Feralia was a day in late October when time was taken as a society to remember departed loved ones. Early in November Romans held a festival in honour of Pomona, the goddess of fruitful abundance. Apples figured large in the celebrations. Pomona is often depicted with a large tray of fruit or a cornucopia. It is easy to see the similarities between these customs and many of today’s Halloween traditions.

With the arrival of Christianity throughout Celtic lands came the need to adapt existing holidays to events, which were more acceptable to the church. It is thought that Pope Boniface IV’s nomination of November 1 as All Saint’s Day in the 7th century was a deliberate move to overshadow a festival which was considered Pagan with a holy day, which could be endorsed by the church. This became known as All-hallows and therefore the night before became known as All-hallows Eve.

According to “Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints’, All Saints’, and All Souls’, were called Hallowmas.”


Pixie, kobold, elf, and sprite,
All are on their rounds tonight;
In the wan moon's silver ray,
Thrives their helter-skelter play.
~Joel Benton

Jack O' Lantern

Pumpkin carving is a popular part of modern America’s Halloween celebration. Come October, pumpkins can be found everywhere in the country from doorsteps to dinner tables. Despite the widespread carving that goes on there every autumn, few Americans really know why or when the jack o’lantern tradition began.

People have been making jack o’lanterns at Halloween for centuries. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack”. According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.

Stingy Jack

Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”

In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets are used. Immigrants from these countries brought the jack o’lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack o’lanterns.



Witch and ghost make merry on this last of dear October's days. ~Author Unknown

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Halloween, Witches and Black Cats

Black Cat and Moon

The Celtic Druids eventually came to be viewed as witches, and the subsequent witchcraze led to the horrific murders of vast numbers of women, men, and animals, particularly nocturnal animals, with cats most frequently targeted. It was believed that witches could shapeshift, and that they would most often take the form of cats, which were believed to be their familiars. In some cases cats were thought to be reincarnated witches as well. The widespread slaughter of cats during this time contributed to the human death toll from the black plague, as cats had kept the population of rats that carried plague-bearing fleas under control.

In the UK, black cats were believed to bring good luck, but in North America, the opposite superstition took hold. The association of the Celtic Druids with witchcraft ensured that witches and cats became two of the most enduring Halloween symbols and gave rise to a number of superstitions surrounding black cats in the New World. To this day, there are people who continue to associate black cats with evil.


Asking For Candy

Back in the Middle Ages it became common practice for the poor to go door to door asking for gifts of food at Hallowmas on November 1 in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day the following day. This was known as souling. The practice finds its roots in Ireland and Britain but was also known to have happened as far south as Italy and was mentioned by Shakespeare in his play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona in the line “puling like a beggar at Hallowmas.”

In 19th century Scotland the practice of guising on All Saints Eve involved revellers door-knocking in costume and being rewarded with gifts of cakes, fruit and money for their efforts.

According to Wikipedia “The earliest known use in print of the term “trick or treat” appears in 1927, from Blackie, Alberta:

Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.” ”


Heather Burns said...

very cool post!

Lesley said...

I actually didn't know anything about Halloween so this was very informative. I allow my kids to dress up for Halloween but we usually go to the church for a "Trunk or Treat" instead of door to door, you don't have to walk as far and you're guaranteed lots of candy.. ha ha ha

Now that's the spirit of Halloween! lol

Kim Giancaterino said...

Thanks! I learned a lot about the traditions of Halloween. It's one of my favorite holidays because of the transition to cooler weather and fall nesting. I love the colors and the symbols, not so much the commercial aspects of it. When the temperature is in triple digits and stores are already displaying Halloween cards, there is a disconnect.

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