A Horrible History Lesson

By Ethan Harmon

  As the month of October enters its final days, a craze runs rampant throughout the streets. Carved pumpkins are illuminated with candles and placed on display on porches. Sinister depictions of monsters, spirits, and evil creatures are etched into front of houses, creating a fitting atmosphere for the chilly weather. And to top off the madness, candy is purchased and stockpiled and bizarre costumes are worn to celebrate the end of the month. Of course, I’m talking about Halloween, the strange holiday that forces any and all to dress as some sort of fantastical creature, knock on doors around the neighborhood, and receive mountains of sugar-filled treats. It’s a harmless, fun holiday for families, and one that is celebrated every year. But the idea of Halloween is a bit strange, isn’t it? Costumes and candy just because it’s October does not make a lot of sense. As it turns out, there is a story behind this wacky holiday.

Halloween’s origins date back roughly 2000 years ago. The Celtics, who lived in what is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1st. The day was a sign that the seasons of harvest were at an end and the winter was soon approaching. Because the winter season was associated with death, the Celtics believed that lingering spirits would be present. So, the night before the New Year (October 31st), the Celtics held the festival of Samhain. Sources detailing the activities of the festival vary. Some say that food and drink were laid out as offerings to either help passing spirits or ward them off. Others believe that make-shift costumes were donned. All sources seem to agree that bonfires were ignited and fortunes were told.

The Celts were eventually completely conquered by the Roman Empire. The Romans combined two of their traditional celebrations – Feralia, a late October festival commemorating the dead, and Pomona, a day of celebration for the goddess of fruit and trees – with the Samhain festival. Eventually, Christianity spread throughout the lands, but the church did not like the Pagan roots of the Samhain festival, so All Saints Day was established (originally on May 13th) and moved to November 1st. The idea of All Saints Day was to praise the dead Christian saints and martyrs. The day was also known as All Hallows or All Hallowmans. Samhain was still practiced in amongst small groups, and because the day came one day prior to All Hallows, it was dubbed All Hallows Eve. November 2nd was eventually declared All Souls Day, which would start a familiar tradition. The poor would go door to door and ask for food, drink, or money. In return, prayers for the family’s departed would be shared.

In the American colonies, Halloween was not widely celebrated. Small pockets of villages would celebrate certain customs. Some events, called “play parties,” became common. These parties involved singing, dancing, and fortune-telling. The holiday was not widely received in the U.S. until the mid-1800s when many Irish immigrants arrived to escape famine, bringing their traditions with them. Eventually, the traditions became secular, community-centered events. After years and years of the celebration, myths and stories were added to the legend of the holiday, creating many of the popular staples and traditions that we are accustomed to.

Of course, the idea of this holiday is not so much of a celebration of the dead, but more of a family-oriented holiday that everyone can enjoy together. But, it is to be noted, that very old themes are still present in Halloween today: costumes, door-to-door receiving, festive song and dance (parties). Of course, the holiday is nowhere close to what it used to be, and that is due to its long history of being passed between cultures and combined with other celebrations. Regardless, when it comes down to the core, this holiday should be celebrated with friends and family. Remember its roots, but also go have fun! Trick-or-treat!