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Halloween Origins and Meanings

Updated on May 16, 2013

Halloween Origins

All Hallows Eve or Hallowe'en is a Celtic Festival celebrated on October 31 each year. It is a Festival of the Supernatural and the Dead. In some countries it is treated as an excuse for frivolity and partying, but other countries have a more reverant approach to this holiday.

All Hallows Eve Celebrations

The most likely origin of Halloween is the Celtic celebration of Samhain, which dates back to around 5 BC. Samhain, pronounced "sow-en" meaning "end of summer," usually occurred around the end of October, the Celtic New Year. The onset of winter was a time of change for ancient peoples - crops did not flourish in winter, so food had to be stored until summer. Snow and ice brought cold and death. Darker days brought fear and anxiety, both physical and spiritual. The final harvest was time for a celebration. Believing that spirits rose from the dead at the beginning of November, Celts left food at their doors for good spirits, and hid their faces behind masks to frighten off bad spirits. Large turnips were carved into gruesome faces to keep spirits away.

The Early Christian Church attempted to eradicate pagan festivals by incorporating them into their own belief system; The Roman Feast of Saturnalia became Christmas, and November 1st became All Saint's Day or All Hallows Day (Hallow meaning 'Holy') in celebration of those Christian saints without a special holy day. Therefore the previous day became All Hallows Eve or Hallowe'en. As the Christian Church tended to mark the previous evening before a holiday, All Hallows Eve became a time of celebration too - but a macabre one rather than a Holy one.

Halloween Traditions

With the Christian Church's declaration in 731 AD, that November 1 was to become All Saints' Day, Various activities such as parading images of saints was encouraged, as well as celebration of a good harvest. However, old habits die hard, and the association of Halloween with the dead was impossible to shake. Over the centuries, other cultures customs have added to the celebrations. An irrational fear of witchcraft grew out of the natural abilities of some wise women to cure maladies with plants and herbs. An equally irrational fear of black cats simply because of their feline ability to move quietly and quickly through the night.

The pumpkin, known and used by Native Americans, was unknown to Europeans, who would carve turnips instead. Trick or Treat may have been part of the Samhain custom of sharing food, or just a commonplace generosity toward children hen they were most likely to be hungray and afraid. Some cultures had traditions of mischief-making between communities - payback for minor infractions or inconveneinces earlier in the year. Predicting the future, being offered the opportunity to see the face of a future sweetheart and other traditional fortune-telling practices are also common to this time of year.

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Halloween Around the World

In Spanish-speaking cultures such as Mexico, Spain and parts of South America, All Souls' Day, November 2, is celebrated over 3 days from October 31. This celebration is in honor of the dead, believed to return to their former earthly homes on Halloween. Families will construct altars for their relatives and decorate them with flowers and photographs and even favorite food and drink. Candles are left burning to guide their loved ones' spirits home. The grave is often tidyed and decorated too. Then on November 2, everyone gathers at the graveside for a picnic.

Canada, Great Britain and the Netherlands all embrace the US celebration of Halloween. France regards Halloween as American; Belgium and Austria honor their dead. China calls the Halloween festival 'Teng Chieh.' They fashion boats from paper to be burned in the evening to free the spirits of those who died by accident or drowning and whose bodies are unburied. Monks recite special verses and offerings of fruit are made.

Halloween Food Around the World

Apples, corn and pumpkin are harvest foods, so eating those foods plus grain-based foods such as bread would be a coomonplace event at this time of year. However, different countries have different customs with which certains foods have become associated.

'Trick or treat' is a US custom probably imported from Ireland where children would ask for sweetmeats as a bribe to prevent mischief. Pumpkin Pie is also popular here.

Scotland traditionally made soul cakes, which when eaten were supposed to release a soul from Purgatory. Soul cakes are flat, round oat buns also called 'Dirge Loaves.'

Spain's 'Pan de Muerto' or bread of the dead, is made from bread covered in anise seeds shaped into skulls or bones.

Ireland once celebrated Halloween as a meat-free day, eating potato-based dishes such as Colcannon instead.

The Hag

Robert Herrick (1648)

The Hag is astride,

This night for to ride;

The Devill and shee together:

Through thick, and through thin,

Now out, and then in,

Though ne'r so foule be the weather.

A Thorn or a Burr

She takes for a Spurre:

With a lash of a Bramble she rides now,

Through Brakes and through Bryars,

O're Ditches, and Mires,

She followes the Spirit that guides now.

No Beast, for his food,

Dares now range the wood;

But husht in his laire he lies lurking:

While mischiefs, by these,

On Land and on Seas,

At noone of Night are working,

The storme will arise,

And trouble the skies;

This night, and more for the wonder,

The ghost from the Tomb

Affrighted shall come,

Cal'd out by the clap of the Thunder.

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    • GardeningMagic profile image

      GardeningMagic 4 years ago

      Great lens as always, Garden Arbor, keep up the good work.

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 4 years ago

      Very fun lens - pinned to my Halloween board.

    • VspaBotanicals profile image

      VspaBotanicals 5 years ago

      Thanks! Great lens!

    • Rangoon House profile image

      AJ 6 years ago from Australia

      A great informative write about the true origins of Halloween.

    • GardenArbor profile image

      GardenArbor 6 years ago

      @imolaK: Thank you so much for the blessing!!!

    • imolaK profile image

      imolaK 6 years ago

      Thank you for sharing this lens with us. Blessed!