Halloween is the only time of the year when begging for candy and dressing up like Saddam Hussein is not only considered normal, but is actually encouraged. However, few know the true origin of one of America’s favorite holidays.
While now associated more with chocolate and costumes than any church, Halloween started out as an ancient religious festival. It can be traced as far back as the fifth century B.C., when it was first celebrated by the Celts of Ireland, Scotland and France as Samhein.
Taking place on Oct. 31, the Celts considered it to be the end of summer and the beginning of their new year.
During this new year, the Celts believed the spirits of those that died the previous year returned to earth, looking for a body to inhabit. To protect themselves from possession by these ghosts they would dress up in frightening costumes and walk around making as much noise as possible to frighten them away.
The name Halloween came from All Saints’ Day, which is Nov. 1. The night before All Saints’ Day, Oct. 31, was called “All Hallows’ Eve,” which was eventually shortened to Halloween.
Throughout the years, Samhein was incorporated into Roman traditions and was often celebrated in October along with the festival of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees.
Her symbol was the apple,
an explanation for the popularity of bobbing for apples at Halloween.
During the ninth century, Christians began a practice known as “souling.” On Nov. 2, All Souls’ Day, Christians would parade around the village asking for “soul cakes,” made out of bread and fruit.
In return, they would promise to say prayers for the dead relatives of those that gave them bread.
Throughout the years, this holiday has turned into the modern-day practice of trick-or-treating, an event that today has more to do with bulging bags of candy and chants of “trick-or-treat, smell my feet!” than prayers and concern for dead souls.
The holiday of Halloween and the custom of trick-or-treating were brought to America by Irish immigrants in the 1840s.
Girls would stay inside, trying to communicate with spirits, while boys would roam around knocking down outhouses and fences. The adults would blame these pranks on playful spirits.
However, during the Great Depression these harmless acts of mischief turned violent as the frustration over poverty grew. For boys, Halloween became an excuse for vandalism and looting.
Concerned adults bribed the children
into good behavior with “treats,” distracting them from playing”tricks.” The phrase “trick-or-treat”
became widespread by 1939.
Many “evil” omens associated with Halloween had their origins in the medieval period. Many believed in witches in Europe, burning innocent people alive for supposedly working with the devil.
Black cats were thought to be companions of witches and were suspicious because their dark color allowed them to disappear into the night.
Thousands of cats were killed because of this, leading to an increase in the number of mice and rats.
This large rodent population brought an increase of fleas, many of which carried the Black Plague, which in turn went on to infect and kill millions of people throughout Europe.
Jack-o’-lanterns were also brought over by the poor Irish immigrants, who had previously made cheap lights out of carved turnips.
However, they discovered that pumpkins were easier to carve and soon these candlelit lamps became decorations.
The popularity of horror films in the early 1900s created monsters like vampires, mummies and werewolves that became staples of Halloween and increased America’s enjoyment of being scared.
America is not the only country to observe Halloween. In Spanish-speaking countries they have a three-day festival from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 known as “El D?a de Los Muertos” or “The Day of the Dead.” Families make altars in honor of dead relatives and offer cakes, bread and fruit to the deceased.
“Teng Chieh” is celebrated in China. Food and water are put in front of pictures of dead family members and lamps are lit to light the way for the spirits to the afterlife.
In Germany, knives are put away on Halloween night so wandering spirits are not hurt by them.
Some sociologists see Halloween and its customs as being psychologically healthy.
“Halloween is a time that reconfirms the social bond of a neighborhood by a ritual act of trade,” Richard Seltzer wrote in his essay, “Why Bother to Save Halloween.”
“Children go to lengths to dress up and overcome their fear of strangers in exchange for candy. And adults buy the candy and overcome their distrust of strange children in exchange for the pleasure of seeing their wild outfits and vicariously reliving their own adventures as children,” Seltzer added.
Some sociologists also believe Halloween’s celebration of death and the unknown is linked to our own hidden fears of death and the afterlife. Instead of worrying about it, Halloween makes death seem almost fun and relatively harmless.
Tell that to Michael Myers.
-Information from encarta.com, holidayspot.com, neopagan.com and wilstar.com