Straddling the line between the fall and winter seasons, Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition. Historians believe that Halloweens origins come from the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain, which was a time when the Celtic people would light fires and wear costumes in order to ward of the roaming ghosts of the dead. The Celts believed that November 1, which was the last day of their calendar year, was the day in which those who had died the previous year could again roam the earth and cause the death of crops, livestock and people. For this reason, the celebration of Samhain was held to scare off the evil spirits. They would also leave sacrifices for the spirits as a way to distract the spirits so that they would not kill.
These traditions were later incorporated into the Catholic faith in the 9th century when Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as All Saints Day, which was a time to honor those who had died the previous year; it was also a time to honor the saints. The night before All Saints Day was known as All Hallows Eve. This was the time in which it was believed that the “veil” between the living and the dead was thinnest. It was for this reason that many people adopted practices similar to those of Samhain in order to ward off the dead. People would dress in costume to ward off the dead similar to the way the Celts did.
The Origins of Trick-or-Treating
It was during this time that several modern Halloween traditions were created; the first is the tradition of trick-or-treating. On All Hallows Eve, the poor in England would “go a-souling”. This was a tradition in which people would go door to door asking for food. In return, they would offer to pray for the dead relatives of those who gave them food. It was widely believed by the Catholic people at this time that praying for someone who had died would grant them passage to heaven. That is why people were glad to exchange food for prayer. The Catholic Church encouraged this tradition as it slowly replaced the Celtic tradition of performing sacrifices to appease the dead. Children eventually adopted this tradition as well, which developed into modern trick or treating.
This modern Halloween tradition finds its roots in the same time period that trick-or-treating comes from. The Jack-o-Lantern existed as another way for people to scare off the dead on All Hallows Eve. People hoped that these would act to keep the evil spirits away from their homes. Early Jack-o-Lanterns however were created out of turnips rather than pumpkins. Over the next few centuries as Halloween grew and adapted, the modern superstitions of witches and black cats were added to the Halloween tradition.
Halloween in the United States
Halloween was not a popular observance in the early United States. This was due to the fact that the early settlers were primarily protestants who did not observe All Saints Day. It was not until the mid 1800’s that Halloween started to gain popularity in the United States as immigration from Ireland and Europe increased. Many Catholics who immigrated brought with them their Halloween traditions. In the late 1800’s many efforts were made to spread and popularize Halloween in the United states. The holiday was put on public calendars, and newspapers started to publicize Halloween events and traditions. However, these early media articles portrayed Halloween as a family event rather than as a religious or spiritual holiday.
By the mid-twentieth century, Halloween had turned into a secular holiday in the United States and it had started to become the commercialized holiday that it is today. These Halloween celebrations included many celebrations we have today including parties, parades and trick-or-treating. Halloween quickly developed into the holiday it is today. Halloween is now the second largest commercial holiday in the United States with Americans spending an average of 8 billion a year on Halloween. However, if you really look at our modern Halloween traditions, you can still see traces of the original Celtic and Catholic celebrations that led to the creation of Halloween.
Austin Faux works for a great haunted house in Denver, Co the 13th Door. Every year I’m joyfully locked to my computer blogging away on Halloween, horror movies and haunted houses. When I’m at home I do my best to be a devoted husband and father. Find me on my Facebook.