Halloween’s History Is Less Spooky Than You Think

posted: 10/17/16
by: Sasha Brown-Worsham

Credit: Pixabay

By now, Halloween is anything but a religious holiday. We dress up as ghosts and goblins. We let our children go from house to house asking for candy. We watch scary movies and we tell spooky stories. But how many of us really know the story of how it all started?

All Hallows' Eve falls on the same day each year. October 31. According to the Catholic church, this is the day before All Hallows' Day, also known as All Saints' Day. Traditionally, there was a vigil held by the church on All Hallows' that included prayers and fasting to prepare for the feast to celebrate All Saints Day.

In old English, "Hallowed" means holy or sanctified. So Halloween is holy, indeed.

Halloween Sweden.png
Credit: Kaj Bjurman via Wikimedia Commons

But that is not Halloween's only origin story. Some also think that All Saints Day -- and, thus, Halloween -- comes from the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced "sah-win"). The festival of Samhain celebrated the end of the harvest season. The ancient pagans would use the time of year to prepare their supplies and buckle down for winter. According to the ancient Gaels, October 31 was a particularly special day because the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped.

Alfablot at boulder with flash

Credit: Snap-Apple Night, painted by Irish artist Daniel Maclise in 1833

Encyclopaedia Britannica states that this date may have been chosen "in an effort to supplant the Pagan holiday with a Christian observance."

The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions also claims that Hallowe'en "absorbed and adopted the Celtic new year festival, the eve and day of Samhain."

Of course, not everyone believes this and the topic is hotly debated, especially in schools where some particularly religious people will sit out the celebrations, believing it to have Pagan origins.

Credit: Thinkstock

The holiday has morphed and changed over the years. Though it is not celebrated everywhere in the world, some countries such as Ireland, Canada, Puerto Rico, the UK and Australia do celebrate it in some way. In the US, traditional activities include house decorations, scary movies, trick-or-treating, bonfires, costume parties, visiting "haunted houses" and carving jack-o-lanterns out of pumpkins and lighting them with candles.

Irish and Scottish immigrants to North America are largely credited for bringing the celebration to the states and into the nineteenth century. Some of these traditions also link back to Samhain. For instance, Samhain celebrations included fires to attract insects and bats while masks and costumes were worn to hide from and appease the spirits.

Trick or treating is difficlut to source, though it does resemble the medieval practice of "souling." Back then, poor people would go "souling" on Hallowmas (November 1) to receive food in return for prayers for the dead. The practice started in Ireland and Britain, but was all over Europe at times.

Children in Halloween costumes at High Point, Seattle, 1943

Credit: IMLS Digital Collections & Content via Wikimedia Commons

Halloween has become a major holiday in the US and only Christmas is a bigger holiday in terms of what Americans spend per year. According to the National Retail Federation, Halloween is the second highest grossing holiday after Christmas. Nielson Research reports 600-million pounds of candy will be purchased. The average American consumer spends about $75 dollars on decorations, costumes and candy.

Halloween is a big business and for many, is the biggest chance of the year to let loose, dress up, and have a ball.

Sources: BBC, KTRE

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