Halloween: A Brief History for the Curious Middle School Mind

  • Post category:Festivals

As the night turns black and the temperature chills the bones, and the leaves rustle beneath the feet of adventurous revelers, there comes a time of year when the veil between the living and the dead seems to thin. This time is known as Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve.

Halloween is a festival of ghosts and witches, mischief, trickery, and fun that captures the imagination of people of all ages. Withal, how did this celebration of the supernatural and spooky originate? To answer this question, we must learn about the distant past, long before the carving of the first jack-o’-lantern or the arrival of the first trick-or-treater at the door.

Celts

In the lands of ancient Ireland, Britain, and parts of Europe, there lived a people called the Celts (/kelts/ or /selts/). This ancient civilization thrived from around 1200 B.C. to the 300s A.D. The Celts were a diverse and complex group of people with a rich cultural heritage. The Celtic peoples were spread across different regions, encompassing various tribes, but they shared a common language and cultural practices. They placed great importance on oral traditions, and storytelling was a central part of their culture. Despite the eventual absorption of the Celtic tribes into other cultures, their legacy persists through languages, art, and traditions that have survived the test of time.

Celtic influence in Europe in the 300s A.D.

The Celts, measured their year by the cycles of the moon and sun, and their days by the changing of the seasons. As the Earth spun and the days grew shorter, the harvest came to a finish, and the cold breath of winter approached. It was on this threshold between the warmth of life and the chill of death that the Celts celebrated a festival known as Samhain (/sah-win/). Over centuries, Samhain would evolve and emerge with other traditions and eventually turn into the festival we know today as Halloween.

Samhain

Samhain, observed on November 1st, signified the close of the harvest season and the onset of winter. This pivotal moment in the Celtic calendar called for a celebration of the abundant harvest while bracing for the forthcoming frigid months. It was thought that on this particular night, the barrier separating the realms of the living and the deceased was at its thinnest, allowing souls to traverse between the two worlds. Consequently, Samhain was an occasion for both festivity and vigilance.

During this time, the Celts paid homage to their forebears, expressing gratitude for their legacy and seeking their guidance and safeguard. Concurrently, they remained cautious of the malicious spirits said to wander the Earth on this night. To ward off these malevolent entities and shepherd the souls of their departed ancestors, the Celts set massive bonfires ablaze throughout the countryside. These fires not only delivered light and warmth amidst the encroaching darkness but also epitomized hope and the unbreakable bond between the living and the departed.

Guising

The ritual of wearing costumes on Halloween dates back over 2,000 years to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Celtic tradition taught that on this night, evil spirits roamed the land. To avoid being recognized by these spirits and potentially being taken away by them, people would dress up in costumes and masks, attempting to blend in with the otherworldly entities.

The costumes worn during Samhain were typically made from animal hides and heads, and included masks with grotesque features that were intended to intimidate the devilish spirits. In addition to providing a disguise, the costumes also had a practical purpose. As the Celts gathered around the bonfires that were lit to guide the spirits of their ancestors, they would perform rituals and recite prayers. By donning masks and costumes, the Celts could assume the roles of their ancestors and invoke their spirits, enabling them to communicate with the dead and seek their protection.

Modern-day celebration of Samhain

Several centuries later, Halloween underwent transformations, and new customs emerged, including the enduring practice of wearing costumes. In medieval Europe, individuals often donned attire representing saints or other spiritual figures to observe Christian festivities. In the early 1900s, dressing up in Halloween costumes gained popularity in the United States, as children chose to embody ghosts, witches, and other eerie beings. In the present day, Halloween costumes represent a thriving multi-billion dollar sector, with individuals of all ages sporting imaginative and intricate outfits to revel in the festive occasion.

Rome

As the centuries passed, the Roman Empire expanded its reach, eventually encompassing the Celtic lands. This fusion of cultures introduced new traditions and beliefs to the region, significantly influencing the way people celebrated and honored the dead.

The Romans had their own festivals dedicated to the deceased, such as Feralia and Lemuria. Feralia was a public holiday when Romans commemorated the departed by visiting their graves and making offerings, while Lemuria was a more private, household ritual in which the head of the family would ward off any vicious souls that might be lingering. Additionally, the Romans celebrated a festival of fruitfulness called Pomona, named after the goddess of the harvest and abundance.

Pomona, goddess of fruitful abundance in Roman mythology

As the Celtic and Roman cultures continued to intermingle, their customs and traditions began to intertwine like the twisting branches and trunks of an ancient Roman tree. The deep-rooted beliefs and practices of the Celts slowly evolved, incorporating elements of Roman festivals and creating new traditions in the process. This cultural exchange led to the development of a more complex and diverse set of customs that would lay the groundwork for the future evolution of Halloween and its associated practices.

spread of christianity

As Christianity progressively established itself in Europe’s previously pagan territories, it introduced novel outlooks on life and an array of celebrations. Early Christians endeavored to incorporate existing customs into their own belief system, resulting in the emergence of unique traditions and rituals that combined pagan and Christian ideologies. This transformative era witnessed a significant shift in the religious landscape, as individuals gradually transitioned from their age-old, nature-oriented beliefs to the tenets of Christianity.

ALL SAINTS’ DAY & ALL HALLOW’S EVE

In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III significantly influenced this ongoing transition by declaring November 1st, coinciding with the Celtic festival of Samhain, as All Saints’ Day. This newly-established holiday aimed to honor all saints and martyrs of the Christian faith who had experienced persecution for their beliefs. The evening before All Saints’ Day became known as All Hallows’ Eve, a time to commemorate and honor the numerous individuals who had devoted their lives to the Christian cause. Gradually, the name All Hallows’ Eve was abbreviated, eventually becoming the term we recognize today as Halloween. This fusion of ancient and new traditions facilitated the preservation of certain aspects of the Celtic festival while also adopting the values and customs of the Christian faith.

As the celebration of All Hallows’ Eve progressed, the emphasis shifted from repelling malevolent spirits to venerating saints and the deceased. People perpetuated the tradition of igniting bonfires, but the intentions behind these fires changed. Rather than utilizing the flames to deter spirits, they now symbolized respect for the preceding saints. Communities congregated around these fires, offering prayers and expressing admiration for those who had committed their lives to the Christian faith.

Painting of Christian saints

SOULING

In England, a unique custom known as “souling” emerged during this period. On All Hallows’ Eve, the poor would travel from house to house, offering prayers for the deceased ancestors of each household. In exchange for these heartfelt prayers, the occupants would provide the poor with “soul cakes,” small pastries given as a form of charity. This practice of going door-to-door and offering prayers for the dead helped to strengthen communal bonds and shared beliefs.

Over time, souling evolved into the American tradition of trick-or-treating, as children took to the streets in their neighborhoods, knocking on doors and seeking candy in exchange for songs, jokes, or other performances. This new custom retained elements of the original souling tradition while adding a touch of festivity and playfulness that appealed to young and old alike.

Soul cakes

Learn how to make soul cakes & other traditional halloween treats


HALLOWEEN IN AMERICA

Halloween arrived on the shores of America with the influx of European immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here, the diverse traditions of the Old World intermingled and blended into a unique celebration all its own. The Irish immigrants contributed significantly to this fusion, bringing with them the tradition of lighting bonfires and participating in souling. But their contributions did not end there; they also introduced the custom of crafting lanterns from turnips, beets, and potatoes, as well as the practice of guising or wearing costumes.

As the years passed by and the United States grew, Halloween transformed into the celebration we know today. What was once a solemn time to honor the dead and prepare for the hardships of winter became a night of enjoyment and amusement, a time for costumes and candy, tricks and treats.

Jack-o’-Lantern

Beneath the festive atmosphere and playful antics, the ancient origins of Halloween reach far back into the depths of human history, intertwined with the myths and stories of numerous cultures. Among these narratives is the intriguing origin of the jack-o’-lantern, a tale that is sure to spark the imagination of younger audiences.

The story of the jack-o’-lantern takes root in Ireland with a legend about a man named Stingy Jack. Jack was a sly and deceptive individual who succeeded in outwitting the Devil not just once, but on two occasions. During their initial encounter, Jack persuaded the Devil to transform into a coin to cover their drinks. Rather than using the coin, Jack kept it in his pocket beside a silver cross, effectively trapping the Devil. Eventually, Jack set him free, but only under the condition that the Devil wouldn’t take his soul upon his death.

Later, Jack deceived the Devil once more by convincing him to climb a tree to retrieve a piece of fruit. As the Devil ascended the tree, Jack etched a cross into the bark, preventing the Devil from descending. Jack then struck another bargain: he would release the Devil if he agreed not to trouble him for a decade.

Upon Jack’s death, he was denied entry to both Heaven, due to his deceptive nature, and Hell, as the Devil had vowed not to capture his soul. Consequently, the Devil banished Jack to wander the darkness with just a glowing coal to illuminate his path. Jack placed the ember inside a hollowed-out turnip, and he has been wandering the Earth ever since. The Irish coined the term “Jack of the Lantern” for this ghostly apparition, which eventually became “jack-o’-lantern.” People began to carve frightening faces into turnips, potatoes, and later pumpkins, to deter Stingy Jack and other malevolent spirits.

Modern illustration of Stingy Jack

Legend of Sleepy Hollow

A captivating story that has enthralled generations is Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Set in the early American a rural landscape of upstate New York, the narrative follows a meek schoolteacher by the name of Ichabod Crane. He vies with a local tough, Brom Bones, for the heart of a beautiful young woman named Katrina Van Tassel. The tale takes a spine-chilling turn as Ichabod comes across the spectral Headless Horseman, a Hessian soldier who, having lost his head in battle, now haunts the night in search of a substitute.

In a state of panic, Ichabod is chased by the Headless Horseman and tries to make a desperate getaway by crossing the ancient wooden bridge near the Sleepy Hollow church, thinking that the ghost cannot pursue him there. Much to his dismay, the Headless Horseman hurls his detached, blazing pumpkin head at Ichabod, causing him to fall off his horse. The following morning, Ichabod’s hat is discovered at the site, but he is never seen again. Some speculate that the Headless Horseman was, in fact, Brom Bones in disguise, attempting to frighten his love rival away.

Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman

Conclusion

These narratives, along with the myriad customs and legends that have evolved over time, continue to influence our modern Halloween festivities. Originating from the Celtic festival of Samhain and encompassing contemporary traditions like trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving, the spirit of Halloween has been transmitted across generations, enchanting both the young and young at heart. This lasting appeal attests to the potency of human creativity, the fascination with the enigmatic, and the inherent curiosity to explore the subtle threshold between life and death that has fueled our inquisitiveness since time immemorial.

Jed Holtzman Signature