History of Halloween|
Halloween is celebrated annually. But just how and when did this peculiar custom originate? Is it, as some claim, a kind of
demon worship? Or is it just a harmless vestige of some ancient pagan ritual?
The word itself, "Halloween," actually has its origins in the Catholic Church. It comes from a contracted corruption of All
Hallows Eve. November 1, "All Hollows Day" (or "All Saints Day"), is a Catholic day of observance in honor of saints. But, in
the 5th century BC, in Celtic Ireland, summer officially ended on October 31. The holiday was called Samhain (sow-en), the
Celtic New year.
One story says that, on that day, the disembodied spirits of all those who had died throughout the preceding year would come
back in search of living bodies to possess for the next year. It was believed to be their only hope for the afterlife, (Panati). The
Celts believed all laws of space and time were suspended during this time, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living,
Naturally, the still-living did not want to be possessed. So on the night of October 31, villagers would extinguish
the fires in their homes, to make them cold and undesirable. They would then dress up in all manner of ghoulish
costumes and noisily paraded around the neighborhood, being as destructive as possible in order to frighten away
spirits looking for bodies to possess, (Panati).
Probably a better explanation of why the Celts extinguished their fires was not to discourage spirit possession, but
so that all the Celtic tribes could relight their fires from a common source, the Druidic fire that was kept burning in
the Middle of Ireland, at Usinach, (Gahagan).
Some accounts tell of how the Celts would burn someone at the stake who was thought to
have already been possessed, as sort of a lesson to the spirits, (Panati). Other accounts of
Celtic history debunk these stories as myth, (Gahagan).
The Romans adopted the Celtic practices as their own. But in the first century AD, they
abandoned any practice of sacrificing of humans in favor of burning effigies.
The thrust of the practices also changed over time to become more ritualized. As belief in spirit
possession waned, the practice of dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches took on a more ceremonial role.
The custom of Halloween was brought to America in the 1840's by Irish immigrants fleeing their country's potato famine. At
that time, the favorite pranks in New England included tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence gates, (Panati).
The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom
called souling. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for "soul cakes,"
made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they
would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo
for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul's passage to heaven.
The Jack-o-lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore. As the tale is told, a man named Jack,
who was notorious as a drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an
image of a cross in the tree's trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if
he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree.
According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways,
but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single
ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing
The Irish used turnips as their "Jack's lanterns" originally. But when the immigrants came to America, they found that pumpkins
were far more plentiful than turnips. So the Jack-O-Lantern in America was a hollowed-out pumpkin, lit with an ember.
So, although some cults and Satanists may have adopted Halloween as their favorite "holiday," the day itself did not grow out of
evil practices. It grew out of the rituals of Celts celebrating a new year, and out of Medieval prayer rituals of Europeans. And
today, it is only as evil as one cares to make it.
© 1995-2001 by Jerry Wilson
References: Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, 1987; and Dr. Joseph Gahagan, University of
Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Personal letter, 1997