Happy Halloween (10/31/08)

Yet again, we arrive at a holiday that we celebrate year in, year out, in which no one is really familiar with the origins. And, like seemingly every holiday I do some research on, it dates back more than two thousand years ago to a pagan festival celebrating a harvest that represents a change in the season. It genuinely amazes me how often that is the case.

In this case, Halloween originated in Ireland, where the Celts would celebrate the holiday of Samhain. The Celts divided the year into two halves: the ‘light’ half, which was brighter, was when they would grow all their crops. The ‘dark’ half represented the winter months, which were darker and colder. Samhain was the festival which separated the two. (Beltain is the summer festival, celebrated in May). At Samhain, all the remaining crops would be harvested to prepare for winter. Since no pagan festival would be complete without some sort of sacrifices, many of the animals were slaughtered, and tossed into large fires (the word “bonfire” stems from bone-fire).

The word, “Halloween” has more Christian origins. In 270 A.D, the pope placed All Saints’ Day, or, All Hallows’ Day on November 1 (presumably to inhibit pagans from celbrating Samhain). The day before, October 31, became All Hallows’ Even (short for evening), which was eventually shortened to “Halloween.”

The origin of the Jack O’Lantern is unclear. What is clear is that it was an Irish custom dating back centuries, only they used turnips instead. Pumpkins were much more suitable after they immigrated to the U.S, so they used those. What is also clear is that the Celts believed that between the dark half and the light half of the year, many spirits and gods would wander free. Some sources say that the Jack O’Lanterns represented the souls of those who passed away in the last year. Others suggest that they were used to scare away evil spirits. Many sources say that it has to do with the tale of “Stingy Jack.” I’ll spare you the details of the story, but I would be very surprised to learn that the story predates pumpkin/turnip carving.

As far as trick-or-treating goes, this custom is far newer. In Europe, beggars would go around homes and beg for food in exchange for prayers for dead loves ones on All Souls’ Day (Nov 2). Whether the American tradition stems from that is hard to say, but trick-or-treating itself dates back to the 1920s. Halloween to them (I suppose it still is today to an extent) was more of a pranksters holiday. As such, children would dress up in costumes, and go around pranking storeowners and the like. Some store-owners were able to buy them off with treats of some sort (hence, “trick or treat”). This evolved into more modern-day traditions.