The Origin of Halloween

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Happy (early) Halloween! For this week’s blog post, we’ll be focusing on the origin of Halloween.

Now, you’ve probably wondered where holidays come from. If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun.
— The Nightmare Before Christmas

Stumble through the door to Halloween and you’ll find this pervasive holiday has its roots in a combination of Christian and pagan practices. The traditions that have become synonymous with Halloween have come from ancient games and practices. For some, the meaning has changed. But for others, its roots can still be tracked down to how they were practiced a millennia ago.

The Holidays That Make Halloween

 All Hallows’ Eve

 Candles in Poland put out for All Saints’ Day in a graveyard.

Candles in Poland put out for All Saints’ Day in a graveyard.

Halloween is a contraction of Hallow’s Evening. Hallow is a word that means “saint.” Hallow’s Evening precedes the holiday called All Hallow’s Day and kickstarts Allhallowtide. These holidays are Christian, meant to remember the dead saints, martyrs, and faithful departed. Originally, this holiday took place in May. It was moved to November 1st in the 9th century CE. This was likely done to align with the Gaelic festival of Samhain. 

Samhain

 One of the games played during Samhain is the chasing of crows. The direction of the crows and how many could tell you things about the future.

One of the games played during Samhain is the chasing of crows. The direction of the crows and how many could tell you things about the future.

Samhain begins at sunset on October 31st and marks the end of the harvest season. This is considered the start of winter. This time is when the veil between our world and other worlds is thinnest, allowing otherworldly creatures to cross over. This day was also one to recognize the dead. During the feast, places would be set at the table for departed friends and relatives. 

The Origin of Halloween Traditions

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Trick or Treating

Trick or Treating derives from the Celtic traditions of mumming and guising. This involved going door to door and reciting verses in exchange for food (mumming), and dressing up in costumes so that the otherworldly beings wouldn’t recognize you (guising).

Carving Pumpkins

Carving pumpkins is an American tradition coming out of Ireland and Scotland. In those countries, a turnip was carved and carried around while mumming. However, Scottish and Irish immigrants found the pumpkin (native to North America) to be easier to carve. The first recorded incident of carving pumpkins happened in 1837.

Bobbing for Apples

Bobbing for apples was actually a Roman activity used much like tossing a bouquet at weddings. It was to determine the next single person to marry. In this Roman tradition, brought to England, Ireland, and Scotland during Roman occupation, apples are suspended from a string or floating in water. Unmarried people of the community participate. The first person to successfully get an apple would be the next person to marry. For the Celtic people, the apple became a symbol of the otherworldly in their mythology. This activity therefore became associated with Samhain.

Bonfires

The practice of lighting bonfires, particularly on Halloween came from the celebration of Samhain. These fires were seen as protective and cleansing against the otherworldly beings that would invade at this time.

Hauntings, Horror, and Monsters

Both All Hallows’ Eve and Samhain were associated with the dead. Souls of the dead were said to come into our world during Samhain and this holiday became closely associated with death. This is likely why the Christian tradition of honoring the departed was moved to this time. Samhain also became associated with monsters through Celtic mythology - one particular story told of werewolves coming into our world. Later, other monsters would be attributed to this time, such as vampires (Eastern European in origin) and Frankenstein’s monster (from a novel).

Modern Halloween

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Urban Legends That Shaped Halloween

One of the most prominent urban legends to alter our practice of Halloween is the one of poisoned candy. The origin of Halloween candy being poisoned or filled with razorblades actually comes from some amount of truth. However, in every confirmed instance, unfortunately, the children were poisoned by their own parents, not by a malevolent stranger.

The legend of Bloody Mary also stems from a Halloween ritual. The original practice said a woman should gaze into a mirror in a dark room (while holding a candle) on Halloween and she would see her husband’s face. If she saw a skull, it meant she would die before she married. Today, a common feature of sleepovers, Bloody Mary involves looking into a mirror in a dark room (often lit by only a candle) and repeating her name over and over until she appears.

Trunk or Treat

Many people from this area are familiar with Trunk or Treat. This version of Trick or Treat began in the mid-1990s as part of Fall Festivals. It was renamed Trunk or Treat in the 2010s. The idea of Trunk or Treat is that several cars are parked in a community parking lot (often churches or schools). Children dress up and receive candy, just as they would trick or treating, but instead move from parked car to parked car. It has been thriving in popularity as it is seen not only as safer than trick or treating, but easier. For many rural communities, it is the best way to take children trick or treating.

Pet Costumes

It should come as no surprise that pet costumes have become a popular feature of modern Halloween. There are fall festivals, events, and even online contests that hold competitions for pet costumes. The most popular costumes are: 1. Pumpkin, 2. Hot Dog, 3. Bumblebee.

Our Local Halloween

Those are some of the origins of Halloween traditions and activities. To learn more about local Halloween traditions, you can attend History Happy Hour on October 30th, 2018.