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Holiday Histories: Halloween

Updated on September 27, 2016

The History of Halloween

The tradition of celebrating Halloween is something is ingrained in the American culture. Halloween is known for "Trick or Treating", candy and clever costumes. However the history of Halloween is not based on the current cultural convention. The root history of Halloween comes from a Celtic festival called Samhain, pronounced sow-in, named for the pagan god of the dead. Celebrated on the first of November, Samhain was to mark the end of summer and the the beginning of the new Celtic year. Associated with the new year was death, because the Celts believed that the two worlds of the living and the dead were open and the dead roamed the earth. On the 31st of October, the night before the New Year the Celts began the festival which was to last for 48 hours. The tradition was to ward off spirits by wearing costumes and lighting sacred bonfires. The Celts believed that the presence of the spirits would help Druids predict the future. They used these prophecies as a prediction of what is to come during the winter.

The Early Formation and Traditions in Europe

In the 1st century the Roman Empire conquered most of the Celtic lands. Eventually they integrated the practices of two Roman festivals with Samhain. One of the festivals was called Feralia, it was to commemorate the passing of the dead in late October. The second day was to honor the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. Samhain incorporated the symbol of Pomona, the apple, into their celebration.

It wasn't until the 8th century that Pope Gregory III ended up designating November 1st as the day to honor saints. The day was known as All Saints' Day. It incorporated some of the Samhain traditions. The name Halloween comes from the name given to the night before All Saints' Day, known as All Hallows' Eve from the middle English word Alholowmesse meaning All Saint's Day. As time went by the day known as All Hallows Eve became a community based event known as Halloween. At first the celebration was held in honor of the harvest. People gathered to share their stories of the dead as well as fortunes. Singing and dancing made the event more lively.

The Beginnings in America

Early colonists of america, mostly the south and Maryland, would celebrate some of the traditions of Samhain. However it was until the 1840's when a mass of Irish immigrants came to america, that Halloween became a popular custom to celebrate. Americans took both Irish and English traditions and modified them to create the holiday of Halloween. The practice of rick or treating was an Irish custom of begging for food to sacrifice to the god St Columba, the new god of the dead.

What the 20th Century Brings

During the 20th century newspapers and communities asked parents to remove the deathly and grotesque traditions out of Halloween. This led to the loss of superstitious and religious meaning of Halloween. The tradition of carving a Jack O' Lantern goes back to the British isles where they would carve turnips and place candles in them to offer food and ward off spirits. Since pumpkins were native to the Americas, this custom was easily adopted using the native gourd. The current tradition of handing out candy during Halloween was created in the 1950's when children became the focus of Halloween. Today it is the second largest commercial holiday and is used as an excuse for people to dress up and indulge without defying cultural normity. Candy, pumpkins and costumes are now traditions in the American Halloween.

Similar Traditions in the South of the U.S

Now another tradition similar to Halloween is Dia de los Muertos. A holiday celebrated in Mexico and South America. It is celebrated on November 2nd and called All Souls Day. This traditions is designed to honor the dead and lasts 3 days beginning on October 31st. The ceremony involves placing flowers and pictures on altars to honor the dead. Burning candles or incense was used to help the spirits guide their way home. This holiday is separate but similar to the likes of Halloween. However you celebrate the holiday and your beliefs, it is always good to know where it came from.



So next Halloween, when you're putting out candy, setting up tricks and dressing in costume, think about the traditions of the past that lead to the current traditions you are celebrating. Like all other holidays Halloween has its roots in history.

What is your favorite Halloween costume?

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