Do you love Halloween night? To dress up in Halloween costumes, trick or treating, and enjoy Halloween celebrations?
Or you sit at home, scared, wondering why do we celebrate Halloween?
Be it your favorite festival or the worst, here is the history of Halloween for you.
All Hallows Eve
Also known as All Hallows Eve or All Saints Eve (eve of Saints Day), Halloween is observed in many countries on October 31. October 31 is the All Hallows Eve, or the eve of the Christian feast day (All Hallows Day).
The word Halloween means “Saints’ evening.” It is the day of the dead, including Christian saints (hallows), martyrs, dead children, and all the departed.
Many Halloween traditions mark Halloween night. Young people and children wearing costumes going door to door trick or treating or join in Halloween costume parties, ghost stories are narrated, and young people indulge in fun activities like carving pumpkins, lighting huge bonfires, playing apple bobbing, eating candies.
Some people follow religious celebration traditions like lighting candles on the graves of the dead, attending All Hallows Eve church services, and eating vegetarian foods like potato pancakes and soul cakes.
Why Do We Celebrate Halloween?
Christian Traditions and Origins
Halloween comes from All Hallows Eve, which is the evening before the Christian holy days – the All Saints day on November 1 and the All Souls day on November 2. These three days together are known as Allhallowtide, and it is the time for honoring the saints and praying that the recently departed souls can reach heaven safely.
In the 12th century, the three days had become the holy days of obligation, including Christian traditions like ringing Church bells for souls in purgatory.
The Allhallowtide ritual of baking and sharing soul cakes is assumed to be the origin of trick or treating. Groups of poor people and children would often visit houses and go door to door, offering to pray for the dead in exchange for soul cakes.
This was called “souling.” Souling has been mentioned in Shakespeare’s comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” While souling, Christians used to carry lanterns made out of hollowed-out turnips, depicting the souls of the dead. A jack o lantern was used to ward off evil spirits.
In the 19th century, people would light candles in their houses on All Saints Day and All Souls Day to guide the souls back to visit their earthly homes during this time. You would see people dressed up in Halloween costumes to protect themselves from the vengeful dead.
It was believed that this was the last chance for the dead to take revenge on the people on earth before moving on to the next world.
Thus, people and children dressed up in scary, frightening costumes to escape from being recognized by ghosts and evil spirits.
Priests used to lead Christian Processions and Services in the cemeteries in Spain, France, and Latin America.
After this, people would keep an all-night vigil. In the 19th century in San Sebastian, processions would also include beggars appealing to the tender recollections of one’s deceased to gain sympathy.
Bobbing for apples on All Hallows Eve was believed to tell the fortune. Apples would be selected to represent a woman’s suitors, and the apple she bit into was supposed to represent her future husband.
It posed as a huge albeit superstitious match-making opportunity for women in the 19th century.
Gaelic Folk Influence
Today’s Halloween traditions are believed to have been influenced by folk customs and beliefs of the Celtic-speaking countries, some of them with pagan roots. The customs are typically linked to the pagan festival Samhain.
Celts celebrated Samhain (meaning “summer’s end”) from October 31 to November 1. This was one of the quarter days of the Gaelic calendar. The Celts believed that there was a thinning of the margin between this world and the Celtic Otherworld during this time.
This meant that the Aos Sí, the spirits, the fairies, and other supernatural beings came into our world more easily and could roam around actively. It was also believed that during this time, the dead returned, and their souls would visit houses seeking hospitality.
The ancient Celtic festival Samhain originally celebrated the end of the harvest season and the darker year (dark winter). The Gaels believed that the end of the harvest season opened a portal between the living and the dead and that the ghosts and ghouls damaged their crops in the winter.
This ancient festival probably has some similarities to the harvest festivals of today. There were elaborate feasts, huge bonfires, and people wore wild costumes and frightening masks. The huge bonfires and the scary costumes were believed to ward off evil spirits and honor the Celtic Gods.
After the Roman Empire had conquered most of Britain and much of Europe, over their 400-year rule, their holidays combined with Samhain influenced these European regions. This evolved a day “Feralia” in late October to celebrate the dead, and a day is known as “Pomona” to honor the Roman Goddess of fruit and trees.
Pomona was the Roman Goddess of trees and fruits in the Roman Empire. Pomona was symbolized with an apple, and this tradition probably influenced some fun Halloween activities like “bobbing for apples.”
A similar tradition to the Celtic Samhain was Yizkor. Yizkor was a form of prayer service performed to honor the memory of the dead on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
The dead souls were believed to come into the living world during this Jewish Holiday, and Gaels would dress up as ghosts and ghouls on Yom Kippur.
This was done in the belief that ghosts would not attack or would bypass other spirits, and thus the people dressed like them would be able to save themselves.
Spread to North America
Puritans of New England strongly opposed Christian Church holidays like Halloween and Christmas. Almanacs of the late 18th century and the 19th century did not indicate Halloween being widely celebrated in North America.
After the mass of Scottish and Irish immigrants settled in America in the 19th century, Halloween became a major holiday.
Most American Halloween traditions were inherited from the Irish and Scots. Then, through American influence, the Halloween customs spread to many cultures and other countries, including Europe.
Many symbols and artifacts related to Hallows eve developed over time. Jack o lanterns were used to frighten off evil spirits. A popular Irish Christian folktale about jack o lantern tells a story about a soul denied entry into both heaven and hell.
In modern times, the idea of Halloween comes from many cultures and sources. Works of gothic and horror literature like Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus, Dracula, and horror films like Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932) influenced the modern visualization of Halloween.
Skulls, which are a common theme in Halloween, are a reference to Golgotha in the Christian tradition and depict death and the transitory quality of human life. Other themes of death, evil and mythical monsters are also prevalent.
Black cats, associated with witches, are also a common symbol. The black walls of churches are decorated with a depiction of the Last Judgment. Graves are opening up, the dead rising, hell filled with devils, and heaven filled with angels.
One of the earliest works on the topic of Halloween was by a Scottish poet John Mayne, who remarked on the pranks of Halloween, writing, “What fearfu’ pranks ensue!”. The supernatural beings of the night and “Bogies” or ghosts find a place in Robert Burns’ “Halloween” (1785).
Homes are also often decorated with elements of the autumn season like fall leaves, corn husks, pumpkins, and scarecrows. The traditional colors of Halloween are black, orange, and purple.
Trick or Treating
Trick or treating is the Halloween custom where children dress up in Halloween costumes and visit houses asking “trick or treat.”
Treat includes candies and sometimes even money, while the trick is the idea of a threat to perform something or mischief on the owner’s property.
This custom has its roots in the medieval practice of mumming. Mumming, which was originally practiced in Germany, Scandinavia, and other countries of Europe, involved masked people in fancy dresses who visited houses to showcase dances or play dice in silence.
Vampires, ghosts, skeletons, scary witches, devils, and other dead supernatural beings were the primary costumes for Halloween night.
Soon, however, the range of costumes expanded to include popular fictional characters, celebrities, and generic archetypes like ninjas and princesses.
Games and Other Halloween Activities
October 31 is characterized by many divination games and activities especially foretelling one’s life, death, marriage, and children. In the middle ages, these used to be deadly serious practices, but in modern times, these are a part of the pop culture of Halloween.
Apple bobbing, gazing at a mirror in a darkened room to see one’s spouse, blindfold games like púicíní, telling ghost stories, watching a horror movie and Halloween-themed special TV shows, and of course, visiting haunted attractions and entertainment venues are just a few of the holiday activities.
During Halloween, many Western Christian traditions practice abstinence from meat, and thus a variety of vegetarian food is eaten on this day.
Candy apples, caramel apples, or taffy apples are common Halloween treats made by rolling apples in sticky sugar syrup and sometimes rolled in nuts or other tasty treats.
Another custom in modern-day Ireland involves baking a light fruit cake into which a ring, coin, and other charms are embedded.
The finder is deemed to be fortunate. Then, of course, there are soul cakes, pumpkin pies, pumpkin spiced lattes, candy corns, pumpkins, candy bats… the list of foods is endless!
Enjoy The Spooky Season!
Here, you have your answer to “why do we celebrate Halloween?”
Now, go out and have fun on this “day of the dead” when you will have a chance to dress up as anyone you want to, eat tasty treats and scare your horror-loving self to your heart’s content!