Close to $7 billion dollars is what consumers spent on Halloween costumes, candy, and decorations in 2011. When the temperature starts to drop, the leaves turn different colors and the sun sets earlier little by little each day, fall is the perfect season to celebrate Halloween. Millions of children dress up and go to strangers doors begging for candy. Have you ever wondered where this strange and unique tradition originated from? — The three most important points of Halloween can be summed up by looking at its origins, how it came to include jack-o-lanterns and bobbing for apples, and how it is celebrated today with trick-or-treating and haunted houses.
Halloween, also known as All Hallows’ Eve, has originated from the ancient Celtic festival known as Samahin (“sow-in”) derived from the Old Irish Samuin meaning “summer’s end”. The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated the end of the harvest season with the festival of Samhain and celebrated the upcoming new Year on November 1.
Used by the ancient pagans, Samhain was a time to take stock of supplies and prepare for winter. October 31 was the day the ancient Gaels believed the boundaries overlapped between the worlds of the living and the dead, and the departed souls would come back to life and cause mayhem such as damaged crops and sickness. The Gaels built massive bonfires and summoned the help from gods through animal and possibly human sacrifices to ward of the spirits. It is believed that the fires attracted insects to the area which in turn attracted bats. These are additional features of the history of Halloween. Halloween is also thought to be influenced by the Christian holy days of All Saints’ Day, also known as Hallowmas, and All Souls’ Day falling on November 1 and 2. It was a time for honoring the saints and praying for the deceased who had yet to reach heaven.
Traditionally it was believed that the departed souls roamed the earth until All Saints’ Day, and Hallows’ Eve delivered one last chance before moving on to the next world, to gain revenge on their enemies. Christians would disguise themselves in costumes and masks to avoid being recognized by the wandering souls.
Trick or treating is the practice of dressing up in costumes and going door to door begging for candy and resembles the late medieval practice of “souling” when the poor would proceed door to door on Hallowmas receiving food, or “soul cakes” which were pastries, and in return would pray for their dead relative’s souls. It was believed at the time the souls of the departed would wait for passage into heaven until enough people prayed for their souls. “Soul cakes” would be given in exchange for a song, performance, or another sort of “trick” in some cultures. Eventually, children embraced this practice and were given money, food, and ale.
Jack o ‘lanterns are a Halloween staple today, with at least two historical roots. The first is the pagan Celtic people carved turnips and rutabagas to hold hot coal from the bonfire to light their homes and ward off the evil spirits.
Another folklore tale gives jack o ‘lanterns their name. An Irish myth portrays a trickster and a drunk known as “Stingy Jack”, who asked the devil to have a drink with him. Jack persuaded the devil to change himself into a coin so he could pay for his drink, but instead he put the coin in his wallet next to a silver cross, trapping the devil and preventing him to change himself back. Jack said he would free the devil if he did not bother him for another year. The following year Jack tricks the devil into climbing an apple tree for a piece of fruit. He then carved a cross in the bark of the tree preventing the devil from climbing down. In order to get down from the tree, the devil promised Jack he would not seek his soul anymore. Because of his swindling and drunken ways, when Jack died he was not allowed into heaven. He also was not allowed into Hell because the devil kept his word.
Taking pity on Jack, the devil gave him an ember to light his way in the dark, putting it into a hollowed out turnip for Jack to carry on his lonely, everlasting roaming’s around the Earth. People from Ireland and Scotland would make “Jack o ‘lanterns” during this season to scare away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits wandering about.
Over the next several centuries, superstitions about witches and black cats were added to the folklore and legends of Halloween. Cats were thought of as evil, especially black cats, and were killed by the thousands in Medieval times, possibly contributing to the Black Plague, due to the shortage of the rat’s natural enemy, the cat. During this time, the church created the belief that evil witches existed.
Apples, which are a seasonal fruit, and the symbol of the Roman goddess Pomona, were thought at the time to retain qualities of knowledge, resurrection, and immorality. Bobbing for apples was thought to predict the future on the night of Samhain. (sow-in)
Halloween eventually made its way over the Atlantic in the second half of the nineteenth century when America became flooded with new immigrants. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that ultimately became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.
The 20th century saw an emergence of Halloween as a genuinely North American holiday and one that was becoming an advantage for shopkeepers and manufactures. Costuming became popular for Halloween parties for children and adults as well. The first mass-produced Halloween costumes appeared in stores in the 1930s when trick-or-treating was becoming popular in the United States. Halloween costumes are traditionally modeled after supernatural figures such as monsters, ghosts, skeletons, witches, and devils. Over time, the costume selection extended to include popular characters from fiction, celebrities, and generic prototypes such as ninjas and princesses.
Haunted attractions are entertainment venues designed to thrill and scare patrons. Most attractions are seasonal Halloween businesses. Origins of these paid scare venues are difficult to pinpoint, but it is generally accepted that they were first commonly used by the Junior Chamber International (Jaycees), who are a non-political youth service organization between the ages of 18 to 40, for fundraising. They include haunted houses, corn mazes, and hayrides, and the level of sophistication of the effects has risen as the industry has grown. Haunted attractions in the United States bring in an estimate $300-500 million each year, and draw some 400,000 customers. This maturing and growth within the industry has led to more technically-advanced special effects and costuming, comparable with that of Hollywood films. Halloween is currently the second most important party night in North America, and in terms of its retail potential, it is second to Christmas.
Personally, Halloween is one of my favorite days of the year. Even as an adult, to dress up and be someone or something else for the night can be fun and exciting. To escape reality into a fantasy-like world where goblins mingle with princesses is definitely a strange site to see, but is well worth the money and time devoted to one of the spookiest nights of the year. So whether you celebrate Halloween or not, you now have an idea of how Halloween originated, how it came to include bobbing for apples and jack-o-lanterns, and how we celebrate it today with haunted houses and trick-or treating.
The sources I cited for this information are from: