Each year on October 31st people from all over celebrate Halloween. A favorite of children and those who like to tap into their “inner child”, Halloween is a day to dress up in costume, hand out candy (usually to children), and try to frighten each other and ourselves with spooky stories. Like many holidays that are celebrated today, Halloween did not start off being celebrated in this manner – its origins have a history that started many centuries ago.
Over 2000 years ago, the ancient Celts, who lived in the area that is now Ireland, Great Britain, and Northern France, celebrated November 1st as their New Year. Since this time of the year was the beginning of winter and colder, darker days, it was more closely associated with death than any other time of the year. The Celts believed that it was at this time that the souls of the dead traveled into the other world. They also believed that during this time the dead were more likely to move among the living. To help the dead along their journey and keep the living from being affected by those of the dead who were evil, the Celts held a festival called Samhain. During this festival they would sacrifice animals, vegetables, and fruits to the dead, and light bonfires in honor of them. Also during the festival of Samhain, the Celts wore costumes of animal skins and heads, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.
When the Celts were conquered by the Roman Empire, the influence of Christianity began to permeate the Celtic rituals and beliefs. Christian missionaries and higher Roman Catholic officials declared the festival of Samhain to be evil, and sought ways to change the festival to become more Christian-oriented. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV proclaimed November 1st as “All Saints Day”, which was also known as “All Hallows” or “All Hallowmas”. From this came the name “Halloween”.
The ancient traditions were deeply ingrained into the Celts, however, and were hard to completely obliterate. As a compromise, the Roman Catholic Church eventually created “All Souls Day”, to be celebrated on November 2nd, and deemed it a day to pray for and honor the dead. No matter how hard the church tried, however, many of the native Celts still celebrated that time in the way that they always had. The evening prior to “All Saints Day” or “All Souls Day” was still observed by many Celts by leaving gifts of food outside their doors to appease the spirits. Many people today do not realize that this is the tradition they are following when they give gifts of candy to the “ghosts and goblins” that come knocking on their doors on Halloween night. Of course, from the festival of Sanhaim comes the tradition of the Halloween party, where guests come dressed in their favorite Halloween costumes.
The tradition of carving pumpkins for Halloween decoration originated from the ancient Irish story of “Stingy Jack”, who tricked the devil into promising that he would not take Jack’s soul to hell when he died. Upon his death, Jack was unable to enter heaven due to the life of cruelty and selfishness that he had led, and was also unable to enter hell due to the devil’s promise. Cursed forever to walk in the darkness between heaven and hell, Jack took an ember from hell that the devil gave him and placed it inside a hollowed-out turnip to use as a lamp. Thus was born the “Jack-o-Lantern”. Eventually people discovered that it was easier to carve out pumpkins to serve as commemorative Jack-o-Lanterns on Halloween.
In Czechoslovakia, Halloween night is celebrated by placing chairs around the fireplace. There is one chair for each living family member, and one chair for the spirit of each deceased family member. In Mexico, Halloween is celebrated as “El Dia de los Muertos”, or “The Day of the Dead”. A festive and happy celebration, El Dia de los Muertos goes on for 3 days, and altars decorated with food, flowers, and photographs are constructed for deceased family members who are believed to return to earth on Halloween.