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Halloween History:

All Hallows' Eve has a diverse history. The ancient festivals that pre-date our modern Hallowe'en celebrations began several thousand years ago. Over time, influences from various cultures and ethnic groups have blended together into what we know now, as Hallowe'en--a time of trick or treating, bobbing for apples, and getting spooked at "haunted" houses.

Over 2,500 years ago, the Celts of Northern Europe celebrated the festival of Samhain. Samhain translates to end of summer. This celebration centered on the agrarian societies that had developed and their celebration of the harvest and the Celtic New Year. Once the calendar came to be, the Celtic New Year began on November 1st, and celebration took place the day before on October 31st.

The Druids were priests, leaders of the Celts, performed rituals and lit bonfires. People performed divination spells and dressed as ghosts to blend in. Parades were held. It was then thought to be that the veil between the living and the dead was the most permeable at this time of year, thus dressing as ghosts to "blend in." It was at this time, that Celts felt the future could be most accurately predicted, thus the divination rituals. Celts carved scary faces in turnips, which were plentiful in Northern Europe, to fend off evil. They would carry embers from the bonfires to light fires in their hearths.

Looking back upon these rituals and festivities, with our modern views, leads to many judgments and inaccuracies of the origins of Hallowe'en. One of the most common myths and ignorant facts is that Samhain was a Celtic God of the Dead and is associated with Satan. This is not at all true. Samhain, pronounced "SOW-in", was a festival and translates to "end of summer."

When the Romans conquered Northern Europe, their customs blended with the Celtic customs.

Later on, as Christianity spread and the Celts were assimilated, the Celts continued their pagan festivals and customs. The church at first did not object so long as Christianity was accepted. Over time the church, in competing with these pagan rituals and customs, sought to diminish the pagan aspects by outlawing the festivals and creating holy days to replace them. All Hallows' Day or All Saints Day was instituted on November 1st. October 31st, therefore, became All Hallows' Eve. Over time, November 2nd became All Souls' Day. All Hallows' Eve later became Hallowe'en and then our modern Halloween. Hallowe'en therefore is derived from the Christian holiday, All Hallows' Day. People offered "soul cakes" to the poor who would come door to door and beg for these soul cakes in exchange for their prayers for the deceased family members of those offering the cakes.

Our modern Hallowe'en and its customs have derived from both the ancient Celtic festival, the Roman festival, and the Christian holiday. The huge influx of Irish immigrants in the last two hundred years, led to much influence on traditions and customs of Hallowe'en. Here are the possible roots of some of the more popular Hallowe'en symbols:

Witches:
Witch, or "Wica" is derived from the Wiccas who performed rituals in ancient times among the Celts. Often portrayed on a broom or standing over a cauldron, these images derive from the wica rituals of potion making and divination. Superstitions abound, and black cats were often said to be a witch in disguise.

Devil:
In ancient societies, often the animal of choice for sacrifice was the goat. So images we often see of the devil portray him with horns, a pointed chin, hooves, and large eyes.

Owls & Bats:
Owls and bats were nocturnal animals and often owls were seen at harvest time, feeding on rodents and other animals in the fields. The lore of a bat being Dracula, has derived from a species of blood sucking bats. Since Hallowe'en is celebrated mostly at night, these nocturnal animals came to be a portrayed often in stories and decorations.

Ghosts:
Since this time of year was considered to be the time when the veil between the living and dead was at the thinnest, it was a common belief that one could mingle with the dead and commune with dead relatives. Anything that seemed unnatural or odd would be blamed on "ghosts" having done it.

Fortunes:
It was at this time of year that fortunes were sought out, to see what fate had in store for people. It was seen as the time for the most accurate predictions. Through time this led to fortune games at parties and the Victorian custom of twirling apple parings over one's head. When the paring fell to the ground, it formed a shape of a letter, the first letter of the name of a future beau.

Trick or Treating:
It has been suggested that trick or treating derived from the poor begging for food or the poor begging for soul cakes in return for their prayers for the dead. In Scotland in the 1800's, kids would go out "guising" in costume for treats.

Jack o' Lanterns:
The legend of the most familiar Hallowe'en symbol--a lighted pumpkin--comes from a tale of an old Irish miser named Jack. Jack made several pacts with the devil. He also tricked the devil. When he died, he could not get into Heaven for his sins and because he had tricked the devil, he could not get into Hell. The Devil gave him a coal and Jack placed it in a hollowed out turnip, which lit his way as he wandered the earth until Judgment Day.

These lit up turnips of ancient times were also said to help ward off evil. Pumpkins, native to America, were plentiful and took the place of turnips.

Hallowe'en parties became a yearly tradition and were celebrated with much fanfare. Party decorations became widespread and were inexpensive to purchase. Overtime, trick or treating became more common and today is looked upon with relish as kids choose to be ghosts or witches or little devils--all in good fun. It is interesting, that for so many who deal with death or things that are scary in so many different ways, that as a society we face these things so informally and with relish for one fantasy filled evening. Unfortunately as with any aspect of life, there are people who do evil things and sometimes these things are done on Hallowe'en, but these people are acting on their own and not in kind with the spirit and festival that is ancient or modern day Hallowe'en.

Some interesting links about the history and tradition of Hallowe'en:

Hallowe'en A Christian Name with Blended Christian & Folk Traditions by The Rev. Thomas L. Weitzel

From the Library of Congress website: Halloween The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows by Jack Santino

History of Halloween, Halloweenmagazine.com

The History Channel: Halloween History

UrbanLegends.Com Halloween History, Customs, Folklore



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