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History of Halloween and Its Traditions

Updated on October 30, 2017
Chuck profile image

Chuck enjoys celebrating holidays with his family. This has led to an interest in researching & writing about holidays & their traditions.

Holidays Provide a Break in Our Daily Routines

The old saying, variety is the spice of life, says much about the need to enrich our lives and reinvigorate our spirits by deviating periodically from our daily routine.

While daily routines like, working, eating, sleeping, etc. are necessary for the material or physical part of our being, variety is necessary for the spiritual part of ourselves.

Thus, from ancient times to the present, society has developed the practice of setting aside certain days in each season where people take a break from working to satisfy their material needs and do something different.

Jack-O-Lantern

A Halloween Jack-O-Lantern
A Halloween Jack-O-Lantern | Source

The Word 'Holiday' Includes the Words 'Holy' and 'Day'

We call the days set aside to rejuvenate our spirit Holidays, a name which is a contraction of the words holy and days.

Holidays are named this way to signify that these are special days dedicated to the renewal of our spiritual side by bringing people together to feast and play.

Each season has its own traditional holidays and one of the big ones during the Fall Season is Halloween.

Halloween is an evening celebration where people, especially children, dress up in costumes, carve pumpkins, tell scary stories about witches, goblins, ghosts and other scary creatures.

Halloween is also a night for children to go from house to house where neighbors provide candy or other treats when greeted with the words trick or treat.

Like other holidays, Halloween, has its own customs and rituals which have evolved and changed as Halloween itself evolved and changed over the millennia.

Read on to find answers to the questions below regarding Halloween and its customs.

Why is Halloween an evening holiday?

How did pumpkins come to be associated with this day?

Why do we carve faces on pumpkins?

Why do people dress in costumes and why do children ask for candy from neighbors with the words trick or treat?

Why Halloween is an Evening Holiday

The name Halloween means All Hallows Eve because it is the evening or night before All Hollows Day, or as it is now called, All Saints Day.

In Scotland, the word for evening is e'en which, when preceded by hallow, gives us hallowe'en or Halloween. The roots of our present Halloween traditions have their origins among the ancient Celts of the British Isles (the inhabitants of Ireland, Scotland and Wales are predominantly of Celtic origin. In England, except for Cornwall, the Celtic population was pushed out by invading Germanic tribes who settled in England following the fall of the Roman Empire).

The ancient Celtic religious festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) began on October 31st. This festival marked the end of summer, the end of harvest and the beginning of winter with its long dark nights and short days. Because the Celts, like many ancient peoples, measured the day as going from sunset to sunset, the Samhain holiday began at sunset on October 31st.

When Christianity was introduced and replaced the pagan religion of the Celts the definition of a day was also changed from the old sunset to sunset to our present midnight to midnight definition. This effectively cut the Samhain holiday in half leaving only the evening portion of the holiday on October 31st.

The Church left this holiday and customs more or less intact but, as it did with other pagan feasts and traditions, attempted to refocus it toward Christianity. Since the October 31st date of the old Celtic festival of Samhain is the day before the Christian All Saints holiday (or All Hallows Day as it was known originally) and, because of the calendar change, the only part of the old Samhain festival remaining on October 31st was the evening portion, the festival came to be known as the evening, or eve, of All Hallows Day and, over time, came to be known by its Celtic name of Halloween. This is why Halloween is celebrated in the evening.

A cart overflowing with the Autumn pumpkin harvest
A cart overflowing with the Autumn pumpkin harvest | Source

Witches, Ghosts and Goblins

Witches, ghosts and goblins enter the picture because the Celtic Samhain holiday celebrated the change of season from summer to winter and, according to Celtic belief, on this day the wall between the physical world and the spirit world was lowered allowing spirits of the dead to return and roam the physical world.

The wearing of costumes was an attempt by people to protect themselves from the spirits by both scaring them away and shielding their true identity from the spirits.

Also, on transition days, such as this, the normal rules of daily life were relaxed somewhat, thereby allowing people to act out in ways that were not normally acceptable in every day life. Doing this both helped to hide ones identity so their actions would not be attributed to them and, more likely, have people associate the actions as being that of the character the person was portraying rather than the individuals themselves.

A Jack-O-Lantern greets visitors at a Pumpkin farm
A Jack-O-Lantern greets visitors at a Pumpkin farm | Source

Halloween Today

In modern times the costumes, in addition to adding to the merriment also allow people to take on roles that are out of normal character.

Dressing in costumes and acting out of character can also be seen in the custom of trick or treating. In times past people in costume would visit the homes of friends and neighbors and partake of food and beverage.

Over time this evolved into the custom of children, dressing in costume and going from house to house seeking treats. The trick portion of the trick or treat scenario involved the somewhat parallel custom of children, in the tradition of people being released from the rules of every day life and the hiding of identity with a costume, going from house to house, under the cover of darkness, and inflicting minor damage on neighboring homes.

In mid-twentieth century America this usually involved the smashing of pumpkins, rubbing a bar of soap on windows, ringing doorbells and running away as well as, among a few, actual acts of vandalism.

In an attempt to bribe children not to damage their homes, people would offer treats of candy. Thus, the greeting, trick or treat, of costumed children upon visiting a neighbor's home on Halloween. As time passed, growing numbers of children mentally substituted and for or and both played a trick as well as soliciting a treat.

As increasing numbers of older children in mid-twentieth century America began looking upon Halloween as a free pass for vandalism, a reaction eventually occurred and steps were taken to banish tricks from Halloween.

Today, tricks are rare and few children bother to analyze the meaning behind the Halloween mantra of trick or treat.

The very term Jack O' Lantern suggests an Irish connection as many Irish surnames are prefixed by O'.

It is true that Halloween and many of its traditions in the U.S. were brought here from Ireland. Jack O' Lanterns or carved pumpkins are one such custom - well the Jack O' Lantern tradition is Irish - the use of pumpkins to make Jack O' Lanterns is an American modification.

There is an old Irish tale about a man named Stingy Jack who managed to get both God and the Devil mad at him.

So mad, that, upon his death, his spirit was denied entry to Heaven. When Jack attempted to enter Hell, the Devil also forbid him entry and, giving him a burning coal to light his way, ordered Jack to spend eternity wandering the earth at night.

Placing the glowing coal inside a hallow turnip, Stingy Jack began his eternal walk in the dark.

The story of Stingy Jack became attached to Halloween and people began carving out turnips and placing a candle or other light in them and carrying them around on Halloween.

White Pumpkin Jack-O-Lanternn

Jack-O-Lantern carved from a white pumpkin
Jack-O-Lantern carved from a white pumpkin | Source

When masses of Irish emigrated to America in the nineteenth century they substituted the larger pumpkins for turnips and continued the tradition of Jack O' Lanterns.

While Halloween never became a Church holiday, it did mark the eve of an important Church holiday, All Saints Day.

The Church tolerated the holiday and its customs and, in time, the association between its customs and the previous pagan religion weakened and died.

The customs continued to evolve and survive, but they lost their pagan religious meanings. The holiday thus became an evening of feasting and making merry before the holy day that came with the dawn.

With the growing secularization of society and Protestant Christian's de-emphasizing the role of saints, Halloween lost its connection with All Saints Day, a day whose observance is limited to mostly Catholics and Anglicans.

Today Halloween is a purely secular festival in which people, young and old alike, gather together to have fun.

© 2006 Chuck Nugent

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    • Princessa profile image

      Wendy Iturrizaga 

      10 years ago from France

      I enjoyed your article. Personally I celebrate Samhain rather than Halloween and the whole family loves it.

    • profile image

      Robin 

      11 years ago

      Great information! I didn't know the origins of Jack O' Lanterns or the term Halloween. Thanks!

    • Moonmaiden profile image

      Fayme Zelena Harper 

      11 years ago from Lucerne Valley, CA

      Happy Samhain. Welcome to hubpages.

    • profile image

      Bob 

      11 years ago

      Very interesting

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