Written By: Karla Cortes
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Origin of Halloween
The holiday that most of us know today as Halloween has gone through many names and changes throughout history. Also known as All Hallows Eve, All Halloween, or All Saints Eve, Halloween originates from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which began almost 2,000 years ago in places that are now Ireland, northern France, and the United Kingdom. The Celts deemed November 1 as the day in the liturgical year to celebrate and remember the dead, especially saints (hallows) and martyrs. This pagan day also marked the end of summer and all harvests as well as the beginnings of cold weather and less daylight which was often associated with death. The Celts heavily believed that on the night of October 31, the gateway between the living and the dead opened, letting the dead come back to the living world for one night.
By the 9th century, Christianity had a strong force pushing its way into Celitc lands and forcefully blending and invading Celtic rites. The church then deemed November 2 to be All Souls’ Day, an attempt to replace Samhain with a church-sanctioned Holiday. All Saints’ Day started to acquire different names, being that of All-hallows or All-hallowmas, then it was deemed that the night before All Saints Day, the traditional night of Samhain began to be called All-Hallows Eve, to then be called Halloween.
In addition to celebrating the dead, the Celts also worried about protecting themselves from the dead. As a result, the Celts celebrated Samhain by wearing costumes, building giant bonfires, sacrificing animals, burning crops, and telling fortunes.
The tradition of Halloween have been carried on through centuries and still continue to be relevant to this day. Listed below are Halloween traditions that are practiced to this day as well as their original purpose.
The custom of carving gourds and/or pumpkins and using them as lanterns has been a practice long before the custom was associated with Halloween. Records within poems and literature prove that people had been practicing this custom. The tradition of carving Jack-O’-Lanterns for the purpose of Halloween originally started in Ireland based on a legend about a man named Stingy Jack. In the legend, Stingy Jack tricked the Devil and trapped him, only to let him out on the condition that he would never be sent to Hell. Once Jack died, St. Peter didn’t let him into heaven because he was too stingy and sinful. The Devil kept his promise, and with that, Jack was condemned to wander between Heaven and Hell with his lantern eternally looking for a place to rest. With this legend, people started to carve frightening faces onto their gourds and pumpkins and place them on windows, in front of houses, and/or carry them around in order to ward off evil spirits.
Due to the strong belief that the gateway between the living world and the world of the deceased was open, the Celts had to come up with a clever way of blending in with the wandering spirits of the dead during Samhain. In order to avoid being terrorized by these spirits, the Celts would “disguise” themselves with ghoulish and frightening costumes.
There is much controversy as to where the origin of Trick-or-Treating originated from. Some believe that the tradition originated from the Celts putting on costumes in exchange for the offerings of food and drink that were intended for the deceased during Samhain. Others believe that today’s tradition of Trick-or-Treating (going door-to-door in costume) originates from Britain and Ireland since the 16th century. People would dress up and recite verses in exchange for food but also to warn of misfortune if they were not welcomed. In Scotland, the custom of “guising” dates back to the middle ages where children or the poor would go to local homes and collect food/money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls Day. The phrase “Trick-or-Treating” has a dual purpose where the word “treat” stands for candy or money and the word “trick” refers to a threat of mischief to be performed on the homeowner if no treat was given. This tradition of Halloween was also portrayed in the 2007 horror film, Trick ‘r Treat.
On the eve of Samhain, the Celts would go door to door not only asking for offerings, but also for kindling for the Samhain fires. The next day, the Celts gathered to light giant fires on sacred hill tops in order to make offerings for the gods and receive good fortunes within the community and crops. Since animal bones and crops would be tossed in the fire as offerings, the modern word bonfire actually stands for “fire of bones” which refers to this practice. The sacred fires were also believed to stand for scaring away evil spirits.
On their way home after the fires would come to a slow burn, the Celts would carry the remaining embers in carved gourds in order to relight their hearth fire for good fortune and warding off spirits.
Black and Orange, Bats and Cats
Colors play a decent role in the celebration of Halloween as well as in superstition. The traditional Halloween colors trace back to the Celts. During Samhain, the color orange represents the autumn harvest season while the color black represented the “death” of summer. The Celtic bonfires attracted bats which in turn made bats to be seen as harbingers of death due to their color and lore. The superstition around black cats dates back to the middle ages, when it was commonly believed that witches were companioned these “familiars” that assisted them with dark magic.
Halloween Throughout the World
Although Halloween is mostly celebrated within America, Scotland, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, other countries have their own celebrations of honoring the dead around the same time that Halloween takes place. In China, the Chinese celebrate Yue Lan, a festival where individuals give the spirits gifts in order to give them comfort and refuge. In Mexico, people celebrate Dia de Los Muertos and parade through the streets celebrating death and offering food, drinks, and gifts to their departed loved ones on November 1 and 2. In Austria and Germany, the people celebrate All Saints Day from October 30 to November 8 honoring their departed loved ones and attending church. These are just a few examples as to how each country around the world celebrates and respects death as a whole aside from the traditional Halloween holiday. Although Halloween is a fun, exciting and even scary holiday, the tradition of Halloween is important to remember, particularly its original purpose and the original purpose of each tradition that we practice to this day.
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