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A Brief History of Halloween

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Every year on Halloween, children dress up in costumes and go from house to house to collect candy. Trick-or-treating is a large part of Halloween, but have you ever wondered why we do it? Here's a look at the history of Halloween. 

Samhain (pronounced sow-in)

According to History.com, the origins of Halloween are believed to date back to an ancient Celtic festival, Samhain (pronounced sow-in,) that took place close to 2,000 years ago. The Celts observed the New Year on Nov. 1, just after the harvest and before the winter. As winters were dark and cold, the Celts associated this time with death, and it was believed that on Samhain, which took place Oct. 31, the dead were able to return as ghosts. Samhain was celebrated with large bonfires and the wearing of costumes, though the motivation for these is uncertain. Some say that the bonfires warded off ghostly passersby and costumes were worn so that the Celts would not be mistaken as fellow ghosts when they left their homes, while others say that it was actually the Celts intention to attract the supernatural beings, as their presence was necessary for druids to tell prophecies. (This practice was highly regarded as it was a source of hope for the Celts as they entered the dark unknown of winter.)

The Roman Empire Influences Samhain

When the Romans conquer Celtic territory around 43 A.D., they incorporate two festivals of their own Feralia, a Roman holiday to recognize the dead, and a day to honor Pomona, goddess of fruit and trees, into the existing celebration of Samhain. Pomona was represented by the symbol of an apple, which may be the basis for the current Halloween practice of bobbing for apples.

The dedication of the Roman Pantheon to all Christian martyrs by Pope Boniface IV on May 13 of 609 A.D. established the celebration of the All Martyrs’ Day Catholic feast. Its observance in this capacity was short-lived, as Pope Gregory III, who was active from 731-741 A.D., moved the holiday to Nov. 1 and expanded it to include all saints as well as all martyrs. It would be known as All Saints’ and Martyrs’ Day.

The Christian Church Declares All Souls' Day

When the spread of the Christian church reached Celtic lands by the 9th century, Nov. 2 was declared All Souls’ Day. This day also served to commemorate the dead, and was celebrated similarly to Samhain, though because it was a Christian observance, costumes were typically angels, devils and saints. Today’s tradition of trick-or-treating is thought to have gotten its start here, as the poor begged for food in a practice that was then called “souling.” The name “souling” reflects not only the name of the holiday, but also the nature of the activity. When the poor begged for food, they were given what were called soul cakes, which were given in exchange for prayers for the giver’s deceased relatives. Thin combined with another activity, “guising,” shaped what we know as trick-or-treating. Guising occurred when young people wore costumes and accepted food, wine, and even money in exchange for entertainment such as singing and poetry recitation. All Souls’ Day was also called All-Hallows and All Hallowmas. The before the celebration began, which was the original night of Samhain, came to be known All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. 

Halloween Comes to America

When Halloween made its way to America, celebration was limited due to New England’s rigid protestant values. The idea of Halloween was better received in Maryland and southern colonies. When Halloween crossed the Atlantic Ocean, it developed characteristics that were distinctly American.  Though some age-old traditions such as fortune telling, ghost stories and celebration of the harvest were observed, American influence brought about new practices with a bigger focus on mischief, which resulted in the holiday becoming very much about pranks and tricks.

Halloween Becomes a Nationally Observed Holiday

It was with the arrival of millions of immigrants, many of whom were fleeing the Ireland’s 1846 potato famine, that the holiday was popularized nationwide. The immigrants brought with them the holiday’s original customs, among these customs was guising which was now recognized in America. The Themes of witchcraft and sorcery that lie within Halloween’s character came from the early American Halloweens when unmarried young women believed that, by certain practices, they could conjure the name or image of their future husbands.

In the late 1800s, Halloween shifted away from ghosts and pranks and towards community involvement.  The year 1900 brought with it Halloween parties for children as well as for adults. At the request of newspapers and city officials, parents were to remove the frightening aspects of the holiday from their celebrations. This resulted in the loss of much of Halloween’s religious practices.

Community-wide Celebrations Lead to Increased Vandalism

Now a secular, community-based celebration, Halloween events in the 1920s and 30s were large and public. Parades and town-wide parties held at civic centers were common occurrences. Vandalism spikes during Halloween celebrations plagues many towns, but by the 1950s this was controlled, and Halloween had shifted, yet again, this time to focus more on children.

Modern Trick-or-Treating Emerges

The baby boom in the 1950s resulted in Halloween parties being relocated to homes and classrooms as many towns had outgrown their facilities.  Trick-or-treating, which had tapered off, was revived this time for children. The concept was widely practiced, as many families believed that providing children with candy would prevent tricks being played.

Halloween Today

Halloween has since grown to become America’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.

Ashley Aulbach

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