History and Customs of Halloween (http://wilstar.com/holidays/hallown2.htm)
Halloween is celebrated annually. But just how and when did this peculiar
custom originate? Is it, as some claim, a kind of demon worship? Or is it
just a harmless vestige of some ancient pagan ritual?
The word itself, "Halloween," actually has its origins in the Catholic
Church. It comes from a contracted corruption of All Hallows Eve. November
1, "All Hollows Day" (or "All Saints Day"), is a Catholic day of observance
in honor of saints. But, in the 5th century BC, in Celtic Ireland, summer
officially ended on October 31. The holiday was called Samhain (sow-en), the
Celtic New year.
One story says that, on that day, the disembodied spirits of all those who
had died throughout the preceding year would come back in search of living
bodies to possess for the next year. It was believed to be their only hope
for the afterlife, (Panati). The Celts believed all laws of space and time
were suspended during this time, allowing the spirit world to intermingle
with the living, (Gahagan).
Naturally, the still-living did not want to be possessed. So on the night of
October 31, villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes, to make
them cold and undesirable. They would then dress up in all manner of
ghoulish costumes and noisily paraded around the neighborhood, being as
destructive as possible in order to frighten away spirits looking for bodies
to possess, (Panati).
Probably a better explanation of why the Celts extinguished their fires was
not to discourage spirit possession, but so that all the Celtic tribes could
relight their fires from a common source, the Druidic fire that was kept
burning in the Middle of Ireland, at Usinach, (Gahagan).
Some accounts tell of how the Celts would burn someone at the stake who was
thought to have already been possessed, as sort of a lesson to the spirits,
(Panati). Other accounts of Celtic history debunk these stories as myth,
The Romans adopted the Celtic practices as their own. But in the first
century AD, they abandoned any practice of sacrificing of humans in favor of
The thrust of the practices also changed over time to become more
ritualized. As belief in spirit possession waned, the practice of dressing
up like hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches took on a more ceremonial role.
The custom of Halloween was brought to America in the 1840's by Irish
immigrants fleeing their country's potato famine. At that time, the favorite
pranks in New England included tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence
The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the
Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On
November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to
village begging for "soul cakes," made out of square pieces of bread with
currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers
they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At
the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after
death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul's passage
The Jack-o-lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore. As the tale is
told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a drunkard and trickster,
tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in
the tree's trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the
devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him
down the tree.
According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to
Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell
because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember
to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a
hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.
The Irish used turnips as their "Jack's lanterns" originally. But when the
immigrants came to America, they found that pumpkins were far more plentiful
than turnips. So the Jack-O-Lantern in America was a hollowed-out pumpkin,
lit with an ember.
So, although some cults may have adopted Halloween as their favorite
"holiday," the day itself did not grow out of evil practices. It grew out of
the rituals of Celts celebrating a new year, and out of Medieval prayer
rituals of Europeans. And today, it is only as evil as one cares to make it.
© 1995-2002 by Jerry Wilson
References: Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, 1987;
and Dr. Joseph Gahagan, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Personal letter,
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May you all have a safe and FUN Halloween!
Me too, I wish all of you a safe and FUN Halloween!