Why Do We Celebrate Halloween?

A year ago this month I wrote a piece for Blissfully Domestic about the origins of Halloween. I was surprised by how much feedback I received after the piece was posted, and I thought it was time to share the information with my Resourceful Mommy audience. I did not write this piece to take a religious position on the holiday, but simply to show how modern celebrations have very interesting and sometimes surprising origins:


It starts earlier and earlier every year in our house. My four year old daughter starts to fantasize out loud to anyone who will listen about what her Halloween costume should be this year, and how I am going to have to make it. By mid-summer I’m hearing about costumes from peacocks to pencils, question marks to queens, and everything – and I mean everything – in between. This year her two year old brother joined the fun in August by requesting an apple costume. An apple. In the end we went for Snow Queen and Puppy (same as last year for the little guy), but it all makes me wonder. Why do we celebrate Halloween?


Night of Ghosts
Halloween began as an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, which is pronounced Sow-in, but it has changed dramatically over the course of the last 2,000 years. Because the dark, cold winter was associated with death and the dead, the night between the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of the New Year, November 1st, was believed to be a time when boundaries between this life and the next were blurred, and the dead returned to walk the earth for one night. While back on the earth, these ghosts and goblins acted like a toddler on a nap-free day, wreaking havoc in the fields and causing all sorts of undead trouble. The upside to all of this ghostly trouble was that the Celtic priests were able to connect to the spirit world and make their prophecies for the upcoming year. And any good prophecy requires what? A festival!


Original Halloween Party
The original celebrations included giant religious bonfires where animal s and crop harvests were burned in sacrifice. Along with the fire came costumes – originally made from animal skins and heads. By dressing in ghoulish costumes, residents hoped that the ghosts and goblins would mistake them for one of their own and leave them alone. This festival changed during the Roman takeover of the Celtic region as it blended with the Roman festival Feralia and eventually the Christian celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1st, founded by Pope Boniface IV in the seventh century. All Saints’ Day was an attempt by the Church to overshadow the pagan festival at the end of October. Instead of replacing what was originally the Samhain festival, Samhein began to be called All-Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints’ Day. The Church created another holiday, All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the day, and the original traditions of Samhein – the bonfires and costumes, parades and celebrations – were incorporated into this new holiday. Eventually the combination of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day combined to make what was called Hallowmas – our Halloween of today.


Halloween Comes to America
The original traditions of Hallowmas slowly translated to American celebrations, and like a giant game of Telephone, the earliest meaning of the holiday got lost in translation. Although European migration to what is now the United States brought with it the Hallowmas holiday, the traditions continued in the U.S. only in the lower colonies – far away from the rigid religious constraints of New England. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century when a second mass wave of European immigrants came to the United States that Halloween began to be celebrated throughout the country. Borrowing mostly from the Irish tradition of dressing in costume and going door to door asking for food and money for children in need, today’s Trick-or-Treat was born. However, the ghoulish destruction of the original Celtic festival continued, much to the dismay of town leaders.


In an attempt to focus less on the trickery of Halloween night, an early 20th century movement in America introduced the idea of Halloween gatherings and parties for children, making the costumes more festive and less ghoulish, the activities more treat and less trick. However, during the Baby Boom of the 1950’s, community run Halloween parties began to grow too large, and the early tradition of going from house to house was revived with an annual Halloween Trick or Treat night. By focusing on young children during the holiday, community organizers hoped that vandalism would decrease. This is around the time that families began to give out treats to all children in the belief that it would keep them from being tricked.


Halloween Today
Later this month, as herds of Hannah Montanas and Handy Mannys parade through our neighborhoods, they probably have no idea why for this one night every year, it is okay to approach perfect strangers and ask them for candy. Will they ever know that thousands of years ago, Halloween night was a night of fear and destruction? Will they read one day that going door to door was to collect food and money for children in need? Probably not, and that’s just fine. After all, that is part of the unearthly magic of Halloween night.

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