Scary masks. Pumpkins that glow. Knocking on the doors of strangers. Every Halloween, millions carve pumpkins and dress up to collect goodies and treats, but how did these October 31st traditions come about?
The origins of Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, lie largely in part to Celtic ancestors who celebrated four major holidays throughout the year – Lammas, Mabon, Samhain and Yule, and whose new year officially began with the winter on November 1.
Where Did Halloween Originate?
The two major gateways in the Celtic tradition were Beltane (May 1st) and Samhain (November 1st), each representing the light and dark aspects of the year. Samhain (Gaelic: Samhuinn), literally means ‘The Summers End.’
It was believed that the veils of the world were thinnest as the old year waned into the new, and that both the Gods and loved ones drew nearer to earth at this time more than any other. Great festivals were held and offerings of cakes and food were given over in rememberance of the dead, and as thanksgiving for the bounty which was and is to come.
Halloween Customs and Traditions
With the advent of Christianity, Pope Gregory IV sought to re-establish pagan holidays as Christian ones in order to appease both the Catholic church and pagan tradition.
November 1 eventually became ‘All Saints Day’, and the tradition of ‘All Hallows Eve’, or Halloween, was born.
The Origins of Jack O’Lanterns
According to Celtic folklore, Jack was a disreputable fellow who tricked the devil into climbing a tree to pick some fruit, and then placed a cross at its base so that the devil could not leave until he had promised Jack never to allow his soul to enter through the gates of Hell. The Devil complied.
Years later when the rogue Jack died, Heaven refused him. Arriving at the gates of Hell, the Devil denied him entrance as well due to their earlier vow, but tossed him an ember to help light his way through the dark night. Jack carved a turnip-like vegetable called a mangel wurzel into a lantern, threw in the ember and the rest is history.
Time replaced the mangel wurzel with the pumpkin, in large part because pumpkins are easier to carve and they’re naturally hollow.
The Origins of Trick or Treating
With the christianization of Samhain, the former belief of the dead walking the earth was no longer entirely appropriate and the newer faith considered the practice of entertaining such ideas as evil. Since customs are not easy to erase, the practice of Halloween instead became a time when evil spirits, rather than the souls of the beloved departed, walked the earth and new traditions emerged to disperse rather than appease them.
Costumes were one way of ‘tricking’ the spirits into not knowing who you were. Wearing ghoulish and horrific disguises ensured that they would confuse you with one of their own kind, allowing you escape from their nefarious intent.
The Origins of Halloween Bonfires
Although more popular in Ireland, the practice of Halloween Bonfires, or Bone Fires, dates back to Samhain as well, when the bones of slaughtered animals were thrown into the flames, thus ensuring an adequate sacrifice for the return of the sun after the coming winter.
Traditional Treats for Halloween
Customary meals were offered to the spirits of the dead, which included all the bounty of the years harvest. Tradtional fare served during Samhain included Pratie Oaten, Hot Cross Buns, Figgy Pudding and Barm Brack.
Thankfully the ‘treat’ aspect of Halloween was never entirely abolished.