Halloween: A Brief History

Last Friday, Oct. 14, marked the passing of the Hunter’s Moon, the first full moon after the Harvest Moon, which, according to pre-Christian Celtic folklore, marks the end of summer.

Basic necessities being a year-round given to most modern Westerners, observers of Halloween — which was once the end-of-summer harvest festival — now seek to harvest a bumper crop of candy.

Adopted in the U.S. sometime during the 20th century, trick-or-treating, the practice of dressing up as inhabitants of the underworld and going from door to door collecting candy from one’s neighbors, has become the second most popular holiday practice in American culture.

Ancient pagan Celts designated this time in the season as the time to take stock of supplies, slaughter livestock for winter stores, and burn the carcasses in a massive bonfire. The event was known to them as the Festival of Samhain, which translated from modern Gaelic means “end of summer.”

According to some historians, it was through the practice of livestock slaughtering during a time in the year which was regarded as the end or death of summer that led the ancient Celts to the belief that during the last day of summer, the boundary between the world of the living and the realm of the dead became blurred, giving those who had already passed on re-entry into the world of the living through burial mounds.

To outsiders looking in, this festival may have given the appearance of ritual animal sacrifices, due partly to the overtly religious significance of the end of summer and the religious practices that accompanied the end of the harvest season. But to the ancient Celts, at least as far as the slaughtering practices were concerned, it was simply a means of survival.

Over the centuries, ancient Celtic lore became intermingled with Roman and Christian mythology to become more commonly known as All Hallows Eve, or in Gaelic, Hallowe’en.
Fast forward a couple of millennia to 20th century America and the story has changed a bit. Celtic traditions took root in the new world after some two million Irish people immigrated to America during the potato famine of 1845-49.

However, the advent of the refrigerator, coupled with mass production and the importing of foods, has eliminated the need for communities to band together at summer’s end to slaughter livestock en masse, erect a giant bonfire out of animal carcasses and dance around it whilst holding a chicken and chanting to invoke spirits of the dead. But this fact doesn’t mean modern Halloween has been completely bereft of meaningful rituals. They have simply morphed into something that conforms more to modern culture.

Halloween timeline: from History.com

A.D. 8 – Celtic New Year celebration of Samhain. “The Celts celebrate their New Year on November 1st and believe that on the night before the New Year, October 31st, the portal between the world of the living and that of the dead is allowing the dead to return to earth. They call this night “Samhain.” November 1st also has a macabre significance as it is the start of winter and the “season of death” during which many people would die from the scarcity of food. During Samhain, the Celts paint scary faces on gourds to scare away the returning spirits and paint their own faces as well. It is also believed that faeries dress as beggars during Samhain and go door to door asking for handouts. Those who refuse are believed to be in for some mischief from the faeries.”

A.D. 43 – Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory, resulting in combining Celtic and Roman traditions. The first tradition was Feralia, the Roman commemoration of the dead, and the second Pomona, the day to honor the Roman Goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona was the apple — combining this with the Samhain probably explains the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples.

A.D. 800s – Spread of Christianity reaches the Celtic lands. Pope Boniface IV declared Nov. 1 All Saints Day to honor saints and martyrs, hoping to replace the day of the dead.
“The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.”

A.D. 1000s – “The church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints’, All Saints’, and All Souls’, were called Hallowmas.”

A.D. 1500s – Immigrants in the American Colonies bring Halloween to a new continent. Halloween begins to be Americanized including “play parties” where people would share ghost stories, dance, and sing.

A.D. 1840s – Sudden influx of Irish immigrants due to the Irish potato famine brings the Irish Halloween traditions. This included making jack o’lanterns out of turnips, but once they discovered the abundance of pumpkins, they used them instead of turnips.

“Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.”

“Young women believed that, on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors.”

A.D. 1840s – Parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the holiday. Community leaders encouraged the omission of anything scary out of the day, pushing anything superstitious and religious out of Halloween.

A.D. 1920s & 1930s – Halloween became a secular, community-centered holiday.

A.D. 1950s – The century old tradition of trick-or-treating was revived. It was a cheap and easy way for the community to celebrate Halloween. “In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats.”

“Today, Americans spend an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday.”

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