The History of Halloween-Why We Love This Festival So Much

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the history of halloween

An Old Spell for All Hallows’ Eve

When the white dog is out and trots all about

Under the clouds that are over the moon

And the hag with her broom rides high on the wind,

And the cat on the fence spits even at friends,

Then it is right to conjure a light against

every spirit that shadows the night.

Thus Say:

Let the pumpkin’s candle glare

Into darkness everywhere,

Burn all evil from the air!

When it is dark and the black trees roar;

Set Jack O’ Lantern to watch by the front door.

Nowadays, Halloween is the most popular holiday after Christmas. It is a children’s favorite festival because of all those costumes, trick-or-treating, divination games, candies, apple bobbing, festive gatherings, and large, yellow pumpkins we carve on the best way we know to make Jack-o-lanterns. Every year on October 31 we spend time with our families watching monster movies, ‘scaring’ one another, visiting haunted attractions, lighting bonfires, playing pranks, and telling scary stories, without an idea of why do we celebrate Halloween at all.

Halloween (Hallowe’en) is not the only one name for this celebration. It is also known as ‘All Saints’ Eve’, ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, ‘All Hallows’ Evening’, and ‘Allhalloween’, which means ‘hallowed evening’ or ‘saints evening’ because the word ‘hallows’ is an expression for ‘saints’. It takes place on October 31, on the eve of the Christian feast of ‘All Saints’ Day’ (‘All Hallows’ Day’) which is celebrated on November 1. Both of these days pay homage to saints. However, Halloween origins went back many centuries ago, and its celebration started much earlier than the celebration of this Christian holiday began.

The History of Halloween

The fascinating Halloween history is very rich and began a long time ago when our ancestors were celebrating a festival of Samhain by wearing costumes and lighting bonfires. In those ancient, pagan times, the word ‘Samhain’ itself (pronounced ‘Sow-in’, ‘Sow-en’, or ‘Sah-win’) meant ‘summer’s end’ or the end of the harvest season.

In Irish, that word represented ‘November’. In Manx, this festival was called ‘Sauin’ and in Scottish Gaelic – ‘Samhuinn’. The Welsh had the day of Calan Gaeaf (in a literal translation it means ‘the first day of winter’). In Brittany, the day of Kala Goanv represented the beginning of November. The Jewish celebrate a similar holiday in October. Yom Kippur is all about prayers, including prayers for the dead.

Ancient Celts believed that the ‘door’ between the two worlds, this one and the next, was open during the night on Samhain. It was the moment when distinctions between the living people and the dead ancestors were not clear, and spirits could pass through. Anyway, during that night, Druids (Celtic priests), used the presence of all these spirits to predict the future. These predictions gave people the hope and showed them a way how to survive the harsh upcoming winter.

Where Did Halloween Originate?

Opinions regarding the origins of Halloween are divided. Many believe that the early Church Christianized the ancient Celtic harvest festival. However, not a small number of Christians who are convinced that Halloween was a Christian holiday from the very beginning and had nothing to do with this pagan festival. It seems that the truth is somewhere in between. Well, it is true that there are no direct proofs that Samhain and Halloween are connected, but some kind of influence between the two celebrations undoubtedly exists.

Celtic Origins

It is believed that the origins of Halloween are directly connected with ancient Celts as one of their four major festivals (Imbolc on 1st February, Beltaine on 1st May, Lughnasa on 1st August, and Samhain on 1st November). The celebration of this festival began about 2,000 years ago when Celts, who lived in Britain, Ireland, and northern France, celebrated the end of the harvest and the start of a new year.

In some way, Samhain was the ‘Celtic New Year’ which marked the beginning of the cold and dark winter, often associated with the death. The celebration began at sunset of the previous day when Druids built huge sacred bonfires. Dressed in the animal skins and heads, the Celts solemnized that night by sacrificing crops and animals’ bones to their gods, burning them on the bonfires, and wishing each other’s fortunes.

They aimed to protect the harvest by leaving out drinks and food as an offer to the souls of the dead who roamed around that night. Believing that not all spirits were friendly, people gifted them to ensure next year’s crops would be abundant. During Halloween dinner, they didn’t even speak in honor of dead ancestors.

A ritual of re-lighting their hearth fires from the sacred bonfire always marked the end of the celebration. Celts believed that this act would protect their homes and help their family to survive the upcoming winter.

The Roman Autumn Festival

After the Roman Empire conquered the Celts in 43 A.D., they took over their festival of Samhain. During the next four hundred years, while ruled the Celtic lands, they combined Samhain with their own festivals Feralia and Pomona. The reason was probably the desire to avoid unnecessary rebellions by banning a pagan holiday.

In October, on the Feralia festival, the Romans celebrated the passing of the dead. Pomona was the festival to honor the goddess of fruit and trees. Since the apple was the symbol of Pomona, it is most likely that roots of today’s custom of the bobbing for apples are related to this celebration.

Christian Influence

During 1000 years of Christianity, many Popes tried to replace Samhain with some holiday in the spirit of the new religion. By the 7th century, the church became influential over almost the entire European continent, including Britain and Ireland.

In one of the attempts to abolish pagan celebrations in this region, the Pope Boniface IV established ‘All Martyrs Day’ on May 13, 609 A.D. in honor of the Christian martyrs. The next endeavor was in the 8th century when the Pope Gregory IV established ‘All Saints Day’ (All Hallows Day) in 837 to honor all saints and martyrs.

The West Church started to celebrate that new festival on 1st November, but Christians continued praying for the souls of the dead and honoring saints the eve before (All Hallows Eve). Therefore, the results of the efforts of the church were opposite of what was expected, and the two celebrations became entwined even more.

Finally, in 1000 A.D., the church established the celebration ‘All Souls’ Day’ (All-hallowmas, Alholowmesse) on November 2 when Christians began to celebrate a day to honor the dead. They believed that their prayers, while church bells were ringing, could elevate dead souls from Purgatory.

In that time, during the ‘All Saints Day’, poor people were praying (souling) for the souls of the ancestors of rich people in exchange for pastries (soul cake), fruit, and alms. By the 1800s, this serious tradition was turned into a fun (guising). Children began to play, read poems, and make jokes in exchange for fruit, candy, and money.

English Tradition

When Protestantism replaced Catholicism in England, the church prohibited official services and the bell-ringing in honor of the ‘All Souls’ Day’. However, people in Old England and Ireland still felt an obligation to appreciate their ancestors, and they continued finding ways to celebrate that day.

They established ‘mumming’, the practice of offering gifts of foods to the spirits to please them. In exchange for protecting themselves of the dead souls, they were dressing in some scary costumes. This custom was pretty similar to modern ritual – trick-or-treating.

In the 16th century, people were praying in the fields by carrying the torches and lit the bonfires. During the time, they organized celebrations similar to Samhain, with parades, bonfires, and costumes. Howsoever, the night before ‘All Souls’ Day’ became ‘the All-Hallows Eve’ and, eventually, Halloween was born.

Colonial Festivities

The first celebrations known as ‘play parties’ arose in the southern colonies of a new continent. People celebrated the harvest, wished each other’s fortunes, and swapped ghost stories. These celebrations were a kind of forerunner of Halloween.

Many women used to perform rituals on Halloween in the 1700s and 1800s, as an attempt to find husbands. The custom of throwing apple peels over the shoulder ‘helped’ them to see their future husband’s initials. Also, according to the old belief, the woman who won the competition ‘bob for apples’ would be the first to marry. There was one more weird ritual. Young girls used to stand with a candle in front of mirrors in a dark room wanting to see the face of their future husbands.

From Victorian America to the Modern United States

The History of Halloween

In the 19th century, Irish immigrants brought all these Halloween customs and beliefs to their new homeland. In Victorian America, most people didn’t know anything about Halloween’s traditions originated, and they considered ancient customs connected with this holiday as a part of the festival Halloween.

That was how a pagan celebration was brought to North America. Although the church was trying to impose ‘All Saints’ Day’ and to erase the memory of Halloween, and the rigid Protestant belief systems wanted to limit the celebration of Halloween for centuries, this festival has remained the most favorite American holiday after Christmas to this day.

In the very beginning, Halloween began to celebrate in Maryland. At first, the celebration included public ‘play parties’ with dancing and singing to celebrate the harvest. After new immigrants came in the second half of the 19th century, especially from 1845 to 1852 when millions of Irish sought salvation from hunger during the Great Potato Famine in Ireland, they made the celebration of Halloween popular nationwide.

As a result of mixing their beliefs with customs of various European ethnic groups and the American Indians, a specific, American version of this holiday began to form. In the late 1800s, ghosts lost their role in the celebration, and this festival became a time for neighborly get-togethers.

Early 20th century, Halloween became mainly a kid’s holiday. With town-wide parties and parades, it started to be secular and a community-centered holiday by the 1930s. In the next thirty years, the old custom of trick-or-treating was resuscitated and a new American tradition was born.

Who was Jack?

Stingy Jack was a nickname of a man who invited the Devil for a drink. Jack managed to convince this creature to turn himself into a coin which he would use to pay for drinks. However, when the Devil did so, Jack kept the money and thus prevented him from returning to the original shape. He was released only after fulfilled Jack’s demands not to seek his soul for the next year.

Jack again tricked the Prince of Darkness the next year. He asked him to pick a piece of fruit from the tree but immediately after the Devil climbed the tree, Jack carved the cross into the bark. Therefore he couldn’t come down until promised not to seek Jack’s soul for the next ten years.

After Jack died, God didn’t allow him to come to heaven, but he couldn’t go to hell as well because the Devil needed to keep his word not to take his soul. Left alone in the night with burning coal, which the Prince of Darkness hurled at him, Jack put it into a carved-out turnip to light his way.

Following this legend, people from Scotland and Ireland started to carve scary faces into turnips and make their own Jack o’lanterns. They placed turnips into windows to frighten away evil spirits including Stingy Jack. After arriving in America, immigrants discovered that turnips were too expensive, but found pumpkins which were perfect for Jack o’lanterns. Thus, a new tradition started.

Why Do We Celebrate Halloween?

We Celebrate Halloween

In recent years, more and more often we can hear a public backlash against Halloween. Many evangelical Christians consider Halloween as a satanic festival due to pagan rituals which are its integral part. They believe that this pagan celebration represents admiration the witches and other ‘evil powers’. Plus, the Bible doesn’t mention Halloween which would mean that a celebration is based on false beliefs.

All this opposition to the holiday could sound pretty weird because Celts didn’t believe in one God like us today. These beliefs are just not comparable. Plus, from the moment the Catholic Church began persecuting witches, the Samhain festival was no longer celebrated.

After all, Irish immigrants brought a softened version of ‘guising’ to the US, and no one has hidden from real evil spirits anymore. Today, children enjoy the Jack-o-lanterns, trick-or-treat, and dressing up as witches and ghosts for fun, without fear of evil spirits.

On the other hand, neo-pagans are dissatisfied because of the Christian takeover of the holiday and misrepresenting the concept of magic. There are also parents who don’t approve the celebration. They consider taking candy from strangers during the night entirely unsafe.

For now, the vast majority enjoy this cold autumn night while radio stations play ‘The Monster Mash’. Plus, children adore candy corn. Year in year out, the popularity of Halloween is continually growing. Some researches show that American citizens spend more than $6 billion annually on Halloween which makes this festival the second largest commercial celebration in the country.

Believe or not, stores in the US sell one-quarter of their annual candy sales during this one night. Besides, dressing up as a witch or ghost is some kind of new fashion, and mass-manufactured masks and costumes are more diverse today than ever. It is expected that Americans will spend a record-high $9.1 billion on candies, spooky costumes, and decorations this year.

And that’s not all. Recent years, many people around the world have accepted celebrating Halloween. This night has started to mix with the existing holidays by receiving various forms which depend on the cultural differences. It seems there is still no real danger for Halloween.

Best Halloween Celebrations in the US

Best Halloween Celebrations

Manhattan – On October 31, New Yorkers wear their costumes and enjoy the Greenwich Village procession. Artists make hundreds of original puppets for the main event which volunteers animate during the parade. Everybody is welcome to the nation’s most creative event in the most exciting city in the US.

Anoka, Minnesota – This town is the Halloween capital of the whole world! They hosted the country’s first Halloween celebrations in 1920. That night was conceived as entertainment for would-be pranksters, but nowadays everyone dresses up the costume and becomes a part of the crowd on Main Street.

Houston – They organize the ‘Day of the Dead Festival’ and ‘bring the death to life’ that night. All foods, crafts, and art are from the authentic Latin American ‘Day of the Dead’ (Dia de Los Muertos). People here are especially proud of their magnificent exhibition of traditional Ofrenda Altars!

Salem’s Grand Parade – During the Halloween, Salem pays tribute to its ghastly colonial past. Unlike other cities where the feast is celebrated in just one night, these people organize a full month of spooky events such as haunted harbor cruises and exhibitions at the House of Seven Gables. The main ceremony with a bunch of painted pumpkins is held on October 31st.

Crescent City Ghost Tour – During the Halloween night, teenagers start a tour of the darkest corners of New Orleans. They follow the traces of all those Louisiana’s gruesome tales full of voodoo, vampires, and ghosts. Mwahahaha!!!

Louisville Zoo Party – Children, disguised in monkey costumes, play with real monkeys in the ZOO. In the same time, their parents carry on artistically carved pumpkins and enjoy their goofy tea party together.

Hawaii – People there organize the Lahaina celebration, some kind of domesticated Mardi Gras of the Pacific. Kids start the party, and after that, all their families join the fun.

Harvest Festival – All citizens in Southern California celebrate this amazing Halloween festival. Imagine fantastic Corn Maze, a convincing haunted trail, hay-rides, and beautiful pumpkin patches. And guess what! All those people actually wait for the sunset when the real scary experience begins.

Have You Ever Heard?

halloween stories

1 – In Great Britain, people celebrate Guy Fawkes Day on November 5. The Welsh, the Irish, and the Scots celebrate Halloween on the similar way as Americans. They traditionally made Jack-o-lanterns from turnips, but since turnips weren’t cheap in the new country, Irish immigrants used pumpkins. To the disappointment of turnip farmers, pumpkins are nowadays utilized worldwide.

2 – Derry is an Ireland’s city where 30,000 people take part in the world’s biggest Halloween party. They walk along city streets dressed up as ghouls, witches, monsters, vampires, and mysterious creatures from the Otherworld. After the procession, many concerts are hosted all around. Everybody enjoys Ghost Walks as a main invent and finally, spectacular fireworks mark the end of the ceremony.

3 – Limoges is a French village where is held the famous Halloween Parade. It attracts from 30,000 to 50,000 guests every single year. Participants of the parade carry carved pumpkins and dress up like goblins and ghosts.

4 – Instead of Halloween, Mexicans celebrate the ‘Day of the Dead’ festivities. Children also trick-or-treat, but they don’t get regular candy but candy skulls.

5 – Enthusiasts of Highwood, Illinois simultaneously lit 30,919 Jack-o-lanterns in 2011 and took the Guinness World Record.

6 – A hotspot for celebrating Halloween in the US, New Orleans, holds the current Guinness World Record. Exactly 17,777 costumed revelers took part in the largest Halloween Party on 31 October 2010.

7 – We say ‘trick or treat’ because children knock on neighbors’ homes asking for sweets. In the middle ages in Britain and Ireland, poor people practiced ‘souling’. They went from door to door and offered their prayers for the dead in exchange for food.

8 – Wearing masks and costumes (guising) is the Scotish tradition from the late 19th century. In order to be protected, children put on spooky costumes to fool the evil spirits.

9 – A Halloween Cake was traditionally baked with a thimble inside. The young woman who got the thimble in her slice should have prepared to be unfortunate in love for the next year.

10 – The name ‘Halloween’ began to be popular and fully accepted after Robert Burns, a favorite Scottish poet, wrote a poem ‘Halloween’ in 1785.

11 – During Halloween, some kids carry small boxes with the logo of the UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) and collect money instead of candy. Their donations help children in need.

Although Halloween is the second popular celebration in the United States, it is not an official holiday. In some countries, lighting candles on the graves of the dead and the church services are an integral part of the festival. It is not a case in the US where this secular holiday is just an opportunity for children to have fun and neighbors spend the evening celebrating together.

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