Halloween or Hallowe’en (a contraction of Hallows’ Evening), is a celebration observed in several countries on 31 October, the time in the Christian liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows). The word itself dates to about 1745.
It is widely believed that many Halloween traditions originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain; that such festivals may have had pagan roots; and that Samhain itself was Christianized as Halloween by the early Church.
Halloween activities include trick-or-treating, attending costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, divination games, playing pranks, visiting haunted attractions, telling scary stories, as well as watching horror films. In some parts of the world, it is a Christian religious observance although elsewhere it is a more commercial and secular celebration.
On the night of October 31, Celts celebrated Samhain, and people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts, believing that on this night, the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. The day also marked the end of summer and the harvest and the start of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
In the late 1800s, there was a move in America to mold Halloween into a holiday more about neighborly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft. At the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season and festive costumes.
Thus, a new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas.
The practice of begging for offerings from a household, originally known as souling or mumming, dates back to the Middle Ages and is considered the precursor of the modern practice of trick-or-treating. Beginning around the 1400s, the poor would offer to sing prayers for the souls of a household’s dead in exchange for soul cakes — a form of alms for the dead. As Halloween grew more secular, this practice was adopted by children. Instead of saying prayers, they would sing songs, recite poems or perform other entertaining tricks in exchange for nuts, fruit or coins. The practice of dressing children in disguise for souling became common during the 1800s.
“Jack-o’-lantern” is derived from the myth of Stingy Jack, believed to have originated in the 1600s. Stingy Jack was a drunkard and cheat refused entry into both heaven (because he was a miser) and hell (because he played tricks on the devil). He was condemned to roam the dimension between the living and the dead until Judgement Day with only an ember from hell to light his way. He kept the ember in a carved-out turnip as a lantern and thus was known as Jack of the lantern, or Jack-o’-Lantern.
In Ireland and Britain, the original jack-o’-lanterns were hollowed-out turnips, beets or potatoes, carved to show a demonic face and lit from the inside by a candle. These vegetables were placed in the window or on the doorstep to frighten away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits.
Pumpkins are much more popular in North America. They’re bigger and scarier and, besides, they give you pumpkin pie, too. With whipped cream, which is really scary.