A Fascinating History of Halloween

Happy Halloween

So, it is the spooky time of the year, the Spooktober as people are referring to it now. Kids are getting excited about trick or treat, and adults are also gearing up for the Halloween parties, and the spooky memes are everywhere. In these distressing times, a festival like Halloween sure brings joy back to many people’s lives.

31st of October, each year,  we celebrate the festival of Halloween and make this day enjoyable and memorable for kids by giving them so much candy that they wait the entire year for this day to come back. We celebrate as the festival of distributing candy and going to parties, actually has its roots far back in time than most of us imagine.

Many people believe that Halloween is a Christian festival because most people who celebrate it are Christians. However, if we look back in time, we will find that the tradition of celebrating Halloween has originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. It was the festival where people would light bonfires and wear unique-looking clothing to ward off ghosts.

In the 8th century AD, Pope Gregory the 3rd designated the 1st of November to honor all saints. This newly formed religious event soon incorporated some of the Celtic traditions of Samhain. The evening before All Saints Day come to be known as All Hallows Eve, which later become the now-familiar Halloween. From the 8th century to the 21st century, Halloween has evolved and had incorporated various traditions from different cultures and become the festival that we know and love.

How Has Halloween Originated?

While what we know and celebrate as Halloween is around since the 8th century, the traditions that early Christians took from Samhain are not so recent. The ancient Celts, who lived roughly 2,000 years ago, mostly in Ireland and northern France, were celebrating the new year on the 1st of November.

The 1st of November marks the end of summer and the beginning of winter, which people in the ancient world often associated with human death. Ancient Celts believed that on October 31st,  the boundary between the realm of the living and the dead becomes blurred. They also believed that the ghosts returned to earth. So, they started celebrating Samhain on this day.

The ancient Celtic tradition holds that in addition to damage crops and causing trouble, these otherworldly spirits had made it easier for the Celtic priests and Druids to predict the future. When people’s entire life depended on the volatile natural environment, these predictions and prophecies were a comforting thing to have during the long and dark winter.

Druids built huge sacred bonfires to commemorate this extraordinary event. People gathered around these and burned crops and animals as a sacrifice to the Celtic Gods. The Celts wore costumes made of animals head and skin during the celebration and try to tell each other’s fortunes.

The Roman Empire conquered most of the Celtic territory by 43 AD. During their 400 years of rule over the Celtic lands, they introduced the Celts to Roman festivals that they later combined with the traditional Celtic Samhain’s celebration.

These two festivals were the Feralia, a day in October when Romans commemorated the dead’s passing. The second festival was the day to honor the Roman goddess of fruit and trees – Pomona. The symbol of the fruit and tree goddess was the apple. Its incorporation into Samhain is probably the reason behind the tradition of bobbing for apples practiced to this day on Halloween.

Halloween in America

When we think about Halloween in America, we think about Halloween costumes, Halloween decorations, Halloween parties, jack-o-lantern, pumpkin pies, children going door to door for trick or treat. In the early days of this country, Halloween’s festival was much different from what we are familiar with nowadays. It was a mix of different cultures and traditions.

In colonial New England’s early days, Halloween celebrations were quite limited because of the colony’s overall Protestant belief system. However, in the southern colonies and Maryland, the celebrations were much more commonplace.

Over time, as the customs and beliefs of different European settlers and Native Americans mashed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to take shape. The early celebrations consisted of play parties, during which people held public events to celebrate the harvest. They share stories of the dead, sing, dance, and tell each other’s fortunes. Halloween also features the tradition of telling ghost stories and making all kinds of mischief in colonial times. In ht mid 19th century, the yearly autumn festivities were commonplace. However, people yet were not celebrating Halloween throughout the country.

After the mid 19th century, the new immigrants, especially the millions fleeing from the Irish Potato Famine, helped popularize Halloween celebrations nation-wide.

History of Trick or Treat

Americans borrowed the traditions of dressing in costumes and going house to house, asking for money or food from the Europeans. Over time this practice evolved into what we now call “trick or treat.”

There was a movement in America in the late 1800s to convert Halloween into ore of a  neighborly get-together and community-based activity from its former witchcraft, pranks, and ghosts focused traditions. At the beginning of the 20th century, Halloween parties for adults and children become the most common way of celebration, and it is when the trick or treat became more of a wide-spread phenomenon.

Association of Black Cats and Ghosts

Since the time of early Celtic people, who started the tradition of Samhain, Halloween has been a day filled with magic, superstition, and mystery. In previous times, on this day, people felt incredibly close to deceased relatives and friends. They often set places at the diner table for these friendly spirits. They also leave treats along the road and at the doorsteps and lit candles to guide these familiar spirits back to the spirit world.

The association of black cats and ghosts is not something new. Since the middle ages, people avoid crossing paths with black cats, as they perceive it as a sign of bad luck. This superstition has its roots in medieval times when people believed that witches turn themselves into black cats to avoid detection. Today, the association has shifted from witches to ghosts, and unlike the spirits of the past, who were friends and deceased relatives, modern Halloween ghosts are evil and fearsome.

Halloween Matchmaking and other Superstitions

Matchmaking or speculating about future husbands was a significant part of Halloween before the 19th century. The premise was that if young girls perform specific rituals, they, with luck, might get married by the next Halloween. In 16th century Ireland, matchmaking cooks used to bury a ring in their mashed potatoes on Halloween night in hopes of bringing true love to the diner who found it.

In Scotland, the tradition goes like this – a fortune-teller tells an eligible young woman to name a hazelnut for her every suitor and toss them into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ash without exploding off popping represented the woman’s future husband.

Another legend has it that if a young woman ate a sugary meal made of walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmegs before going to bed on Halloween night, she would dream about her future husband.

The other superstitions that don’t involve a young woman trying to find her future husband still observed in the modern-day include avoiding walking under ladders, bats, etc.

The associations of bats with Halloween is as old as the tradition itself. Back when Celtic people used to light bonfires during Samhain, they attracted various incests. The presence of insects naturally gets the attention of their predators – mostly bats. Later, different folklore emerged depicting bats as the harbingers of doom and death.

People still tend to follow some ancient superstitions around Halloween, such as they avoid walking under a ladder, try to avoid breaking mirrors, spilling salt, or stepping on cracks in the road.

Takeaway

Halloween is a fascinating festival of joy and spookiness, and over centuries, it has evolved into what we celebrate and love today. With time, people will add new traditions, like spamming Reddit and Twitter with spooky memes. Simultaneously, we might see some of the old superstitions and traditions slowly fading away.

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