The Haunting History of Halloween

pumpkinHalloween means "hallowed" or "holy" evening. Like many other holidays, Halloween has descended from celebrations of ancient times. Roots for our Halloween celebration seem to have grown out of the British Isles, and the Celts who lived there. The ancient Celts, who inhabited Great Britain and northern France, celebrated a fall festival called Samhain. This festival celebrated the end of summer, and was special to the Celts because it signaled a time of transition for them. They prepared for the winter. The harvesting was over, and the herds were brought out of the fields and separated for slaughter. People would gather together for long nights of crafts and stories. This was considered a magical time. It was at this time of the year when they considered the veil between the worlds of the living and the spirit at its thinnest. The living could communicate with those who had died, and the dead could return to earth. In many cultures, the season of fall begins a time to reflect on those who have died.

The Celts believed that fairies were very active at this time and they were often thought of as being hostile to humans. They resented that humans had taken over their lands. On this night, they would sometimes trick humans into becoming lost in the fairy mounds, where they would be trapped forever. In addition to the fairies, many humans caused mischief.

After the Romans arrived in Great Britain, they combined their own festival honoring the dead with the fall celebration of Samhain. In the 800s, the Catholic Church named November 1 All Saints' Day. The night before, October 31, was known as All Hollows' Eve. Believing the souls of those who had died came to visit their former homes, the people felt that the spirits were out and about on this night. This may explain how ghosts entered into our Halloween celebration.

The Irish, who believed that spirits were present on this night, lit candles, sometimes placing them in turnips, to keep the spirits at bay. Not wanting to be alone on this night, the Irish initiated the custom of going from house to house, gathering food for a community feast. This is believed to be the origin of our custom of trick-or-treating.

When the Irish immigrated to the United States in the early 1800s, Halloween began to gain popularity in the United States. The Irish who had placed candles in carved turnips, found this vegetable hard to come by, and used pumpkins that were readily available and more easy to carve. This became the Jack-o'-lantern that is now so much a part of our Halloween celebration.

The owl, often considered one of the symbols of Halloween, was considered by some Native Americans to herald illness and death. Some believed that they took on the important job of escorting the dead to the world of the spirit. In some ancient cultures, bats were thought to be the ghost of a person not yet reincarnated.

In ancient times, women considered to have special healing powers, witches, assisted with both birth and death. In the Celtic tradition, the night we now call Halloween was the time that the dead were thought to visit the earth. Witches, tending to both the passages into and out of life on this earth, may have been presumed by these ancient people to play a role in the actual passage. The riding of a broom through the air is thought by some to symbolize the ability to blend domestic life with an ability to visit other dimensions. And thus, some of our Halloween customs were born.

At the turn of the century, Halloween had turned into a night of vandalism, with destruction of property and cruelty to animals and people. The Boy Scouts, Boy's Club and other neighborhood organizations came together to encourage a safe celebration that would end the destruction that had become so common on this night. School posters during this time called for a "Sane Halloween." Children began to go door to door, receiving treats, rather than playing tricks on their neighbors. This helped to reduce the mischief, and by the 1930s, "beggar's nights" had become very popular. Trick-or-treating became widespread by the end of the 1930s.

copied from