Fifthroom Living


A Brief History of Halloween

A brief history of Halloween may seem like an overwhelming feat for a blog post, and it kind of is. The origins of the modern Halloween celebration are complex and incredibly interesting, but I will do my best to give you the short version. Most Cultures throughout the history of the world have had celebrations based around both the honoring of the dead, as well as marking the dark half of the year and the thinning of the veil between this world and the spirit world. Day of the Dead, Samhain, All Saint’s Day, and All Soul’s Day are just a few examples of these celebrations that span time and distance, as well as helping to define cultures. The modern-day Halloween celebration has developed largely from the influences of colonization and religion on the ancient Celtic Celebration of Samhain (pronounced Sow-in), and other similar celebrations in the parts of the world most deeply affected by these practices. I do not have the time or space to do these incredibly complex and culturally important celebrations the justice that they deserve in this article, but I strongly recommend that you do some research of your own if you have any interest whatsoever in learning more about them. In a far too brief explanation, Samhain was an ancient Celtic celebration in that marked the change in the seasons between the end of the harvest and the beginning of the dark half of the year, starting on October 31st and ending on November 1st, which was their new year.

Disclaimer: Because Halloween, like most American holidays, is a compilation of fragments of pagan holidays essentially stolen during the height of colonization, it is hard to piece together the exact origins of some of the traditions associated with it. I have done my best, but please feel free to add anything I may have missed in the comments.

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A Brief History of Halloween: Jack-O-Lanters

When I say pumpkin carving, what is the first thing that you think of? Is it a drunk Irishman? No? That is about to change. Most of us have carved at least one pumpkin in our lives (usually more than that), but how many of us know the legend that is rumored to have spawned the practice in the first place? There is an old Irish legend that claims to have done just that. And so, without further ado, the Legend of Stingy Jack:

Legend says that there once was an Irishman named Jack. He is described as a miserable drunk who enjoyed causing trouble in the town in which he lived. When I say trouble, I mean more than harmless pranks. One unfortunate night Jack encountered the devil. They ended up having a drink together (there is some debate as to how this ended up occurring, but let’s just say that it did). After they had finished their drinks, Jack, not wanting to pay, convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin to pay their bill. Once the devil had done as he had asked though, Jack placed him into his pocket with a silver cross, preventing him from changing back out of coin form. He offered to free the devil on the condition that he would not seek revenge, and he would not claim his soul when he died. The devil agreed and Jack freed him. A year passed before Jack saw the devil again, and when the devil returned, Jack tricked him into climbing a tree to get a piece of fruit for him. As soon as he had climbed the tree, Jack carved a cross into the trunk of the tree, preventing the devil from coming back down. This time, he refused to let him down unless he promised to leave him alone for ten years. The devil agreed and Jack set him free once again. When Jack died and arrived at the gates of heaven, God refused to let him in (because he was kind of awful), but because of their deal, the devil refused to take his soul to hell. He gave Jack a coal from hell to light his way and sent him off to wander earth alone for all of eternity. Because the coal was too hot to carry in his hands, he placed it inside a carved-out turnip, making a lantern to light his way. Jack came to be known over the years as “Jack of the Lantern”, which was eventually shortened to “Jack-O-Lantern.” People began carving scary faces into vegetables to create lanterns meant to scare away the wandering spirits…including Jack.

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For most of us, trick-or-treating was a quintessential part of growing up, but have you ever wondered how it came to be such a huge part of our Halloween celebration? If you think too hard about the fact that a huge part of our celebration consists of dressing up our children in $45 costumes, and then sending them door-to-door to demand candy from strangers, friends, and family alike, it seems kind of strange. If you have ever wondered about the origins of this fun, but admittedly strange ritual, then read on and find out.

As I mentioned before, Halloween itself is essentially a compilation of a whole bunch of pagan holidays, but Samhain is probably the one that it has drawn from the most. Samhain was celebrated in ancient Celtic civilizations from October 31st– November 1st. During celebrations, the people dressed up in animal skin disguises to scare away the unwelcome spirits who walked the earth again while the veil was thin, and laid out large feasts to share with the spirits of visiting ancestors.

To put it lightly, with the influence of religion Samhain’s rituals and traditions were cherry-picked and incorporated into the celebrations known as All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, which are still celebrated today. I have briefly described the way that they are observed below.

  • All Hallows Eve – (Oct. 31st) “The day before All Saints”. All Hallows Eve is supposedly the last day that spirits are able to walk the earth and get revenge on the living before they cross over to the other side.
  • All Saints Day – (Nov. 1st) A day to honor the saints that made it into heaven. People visit the graves of loved ones, leave offerings and say prayers for the dead.
  • All Souls Day – (Nov. 2nd) A day to visit the graves of loved ones, leave offerings and say prayers for those who are stuck in purgatory, and eat special meals.

Across Europe in the Middle Ages, children and the poor dressed in costumes and offered songs and prayers for the dead in exchange for food or money. This was called souling or guising. When Irish Immigrants began coming to the United States to escape the potato famine, they brought with them the traditions of souling and guising from the old country, and popularized them in America and Canada in the 1840s. By the 1920s in America, the Halloween “pranks” had devolved into vandalism and violence on the part of the youth. This was a huge part of the push for safe and organized community option of trick-or-treating, and it spread like wildfire. When WWII began, the sugar rations threw a wrench into the trick-or-treating, but this just meant that when the war was over, it was that much more popular with the baby boomers. From there, Halloween in all of its spooky glory has grown into the holiday that we all know and love today.

And that is a very brief history of Halloween and just a few of its most popular traditions. As always if there is anything I have missed or that you would like to add, feel free to let me know in the comments.

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