Halloween is the season for little ghosts and goblins to take to the streets asking for candy and scaring each other silly. Spooky stories are told around fires, scary movies appear in theaters, and pumpkins are expertly (and not-so-expertly) carved into jack-o'-lanterns.
Amid all the commercialism, haunted houses, and bogus warnings about razors in apples, the origins of Halloween are often overlooked. Yet Halloween is much more than just costumes and candy; in fact the holiday has a rich and interesting history.
Halloween can be traced back about 2,000 years to an Oct. 31 Gaelic festival called Samhain (pronounced "sah-win"), which means "summer's end" in Gaelic. Because ancient records are sparse and fragmentary, the exact nature of Samhain is not fully understood, but it was an annual communal meeting at the end of the harvest year, a time to gather resources for the winter months. There were supernatural and religious aspects to the pagan festival, though nothing that would be considered sinister by modern standards.
According to Nicholas Rogers, a history professor at York University and author of "Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night," "there is no hard evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor worship, despite claims to the contrary by some American folklorists, some of whom have presumed that the feast was devoted to Saman, the god of the dead. ...
"According to the ancient sagas, Samhain was the time when tribal peoples paid tribute to their conquerors and when the sidh [ancient mounds] might reveal the magnificent palaces of the gods of the underworld," Rogers wrote. Samhain was less about death or evil than about the changing of seasons and preparing for the dormancy (and rebirth) of nature as summer turned to winter.
Though a direct connection between Halloween and Samhain has never been proven, many scholars believe that All Saint’s Day (or All Hallows Mass, celebrated November 1) and Samhain, coming so close together on the calendar, influenced each other and later combined into the celebration we now call Halloween (or All Hallows Eve). Druid leaders wore animal skins and heads during Samhain ceremonies, possibly contributing to the familiar tradition of dressing up in costumes.
As for modern Halloween, folklorist Jack Santino, writing in "American Folklore: An Encyclopedia," notes that "Halloween beliefs and customs were brought to North America with the earliest Irish immigrants, then by the great waves of Irish immigrants fleeing the famines of the first half of the nineteenth century. Known in the North American continent since colonial days, by the middle of the twentieth century Halloween had become largely a children's holiday." Since that time the holiday's popularity increased dramatically as adults, communities, and institutions (such as schools, campuses, and commercial haunted houses) embraced the event.
Through the ages various supernatural entities including fairies and witches came to be associated with Halloween, and over a century ago in Ireland the event was said to be a time when spirits of the dead could return to their old haunting grounds. Dressing up as ghosts or witches became fashionable, though as the holiday became more widespread and more commercialized (and with the arrival of mass-manufactured costumes) the selection of disguises for kids and adults greatly expanded beyond monsters to include everything from superheroes to princesses to politicians. [Countdown: 13 Halloween Superstitions & Traditions Explained]
Tricks & treats
By the late 1800s, the tradition of playing pranks on Halloween was well established. Halloween mischief in the United States and Canada consisted of tipping over outhouses, unhinging farmer's gates, throwing eggs at houses and the like. By the 1920s and '30s, however, the celebrations had become more like a rowdy block party, and the acts of vandalism more serious.
To stem the vandalism, concerned parents and town leaders tried to ply kids with candy, encouraging trick-or-treating in costume in exchange for sweets, bumping the mischief element from the celebrations of Oct. 31 altogether. It was then that the troublemakers, neighborhood by neighborhood, adopted Oct. 30 as their day to pull pranks.
However, Halloween was as much a time for festivities and games as for playing tricks or asking for treats. Apples are associated with Halloween, both as a treat and in the game of bobbing for apples. Bobbing for apples was used for fortunetelling. It was believed that the first person to pluck an apple from the water-filled bucket without using their hands would be the first to marry.
Apples were also part of another form of marriage prophecy. On Halloween, (sometimes at the stroke of midnight) young women would peel an apple into one continuous strip and throw it over her shoulder. The apple skin would supposedly land in the shape of the first letter of her future husband's name.
Another Halloween ritual involved looking in a mirror at midnight by candlelight, for a future husband's face was said to appear (a scary variation of this later became the "Bloody Mary" ritual familiar to many schoolgirls). Like many such childhood games it was likely done in fun, though at least some people took it seriously. [Related: Why Do We Carve Pumpkins at Halloween?]
Some evangelical Christians have expressed concern that Halloween is somehow Satanic because of its roots in pagan ritual. However, ancient Celts did not worship anything resembling the Christian Devil and indeed had no concept of it. In fact, the Samhain festival had long since vanished by the time the Catholic Church began persecuting witches in its search for Satanic cabals. And, of course, black cats need not have any association with witchcraft to be considered evil — simply crossing their path is considered bad luck any time of year.
Benjamin Radford is a member of the American Folklore Society and author of six books including "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries." His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.
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