Halloween is known as a time to wear costumes and go door to door asking for candy, but it’s origins go back centuries to the enactment of All Saints’ Day, a Christian holiday.
A Celtic tradition of celebrating the end of the year was by dressing up as evil spirits. The Celts believed that, as we moved from one year to the next, the dead and the living would overlap and demons would roam the earth again. So dressing up as demons was to protect oneself. If you encountered a real demon roaming the Earth, they would think you were one of them. Traditionally, Samhain was celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November. This Gaelic festival marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.
The name “Halloween” began as “All Hallows’ Eve.” This became “All Hallow E’en,” leading to “Hallowe’en,” or Halloween. It was the evening before All Hallows Day, which was later called All Saints’ Day. (Hallow means saint or holy person.)
All Saints’ Day was formally started by Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Parthenon at Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs on May 13 in 609 AD. Boniface IV also established All Souls’ Day, which follows All Saints.
The choice of the day may have been intended to convert the pagan holiday “Feast of the Lamures,” a day which Roman pagans used to placate the restless spirits of the dead. The holy day was eventually established for all Catholic churches in 837 AD. on November 1 by Pope Gregory III as a day dedicated to the saints and their relics and the May 13 celebration was subsequently abandoned. The Catholic Church was trying to provide an activity that would convert the old Samhain traditions. They came up with “All Hallows’ Eve”, “All Saint’s Day” and “All Souls’ Day”. Many of the traditions of Samhain were then adapted into these festivities and by the 11th century, the Church had adapted the Celtic costume tradition to dressing up as saints, angels, or demons during this celebration.
All Souls’ Day takes place on November 2. All Souls’ Day was a day of prayer for the dead. It’s believed that the prayers of those still living could comfort dead souls, or elevate them from Purgatory. The observances began the previous evening with prayers and the ringing of church bells. Another observance of All Soul’s Day involved “soul cakes.” These and alms were given to the poor, in return for which the poor would offer a prayer for the dead. The poor and their children in some areas would go “souling,” going to the homes of the wealthy and asking for soul cakes, fruit, and alms, a practice mentioned by Shakespeare in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Trick or Treat general practice of going door-to-door for treats is clearly similar to “souling. However, the specific practice of “trick-or-treating” dates to around the 1930s.
In late 18th century America, Halloween was a night for mischief and pranks. Boys would make “tick-tacks,” cutting notches in the ends of a wooden spool and winding string around it. The spool would be placed right up against a window, with a nail serving as an axle. When the string was pulled, it made a loud and rapid “tick-tack” noise. Other noisy and startling practices involved throwing corn and decaying vegetables at houses.
Trick or Treating as we know today, possible evolved to stop the increasingly rowdy Halloween pranks. It provided a healthier activity for the young and gave them an incentive not to play tricks.
Today many children Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF, which began in 1950 as a way for kids to help kids in need of more than candy. Since then, children have gone door-to-door with their UNICEF collection boxes on Halloween, calling out “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF!” It’s clearly a wonderful way to give alms (money or goods given as charity to the poor) to the children of the world. As Catholics, we still pray for our saints, martyrs and souls on November 1st and 2nd, but Halloween is a night for fun, candy and helping other children all around the world.
Without a doubt, the most recognizable symbol of Halloween is a pumpkin carved into a jack-o-lantern. People had been carving gourds or pumpkins and using them as lanterns long before this practice was associated with Halloween.
Celebrated for centuries by the Celts of old and many other nature based religions, it is the most magical night of the year. It was the Last Harvest and the end of the Celtic year, starting at sundown on October 31st and going through to sundown November 1st. It was a night to honor loved ones that had passed on since the veil between their realm and ours is at it’s thinnest on that night. Though this religious significance of it has passed away, Halloween is a “magical” night for all!
Glowing lanterns, carved from turnips or gourds, were set on porches and in windows to welcome deceased loved ones, but also to act as protection against malevolent spirits. Burning lumps of coal were used inside as a source of light, later to be replaced by candles.
When European settlers, particularly the Irish, arrived in American they found the native pumpkin to be larger, easier to carve and seemed the perfect choice for lanterns. Halloween didn’t really catch on big in this country until the late 1800’s and has been celebrated in so many ways ever since!
The name “Jack-o’-lantern” has changed in meaning several times. It was first recorded as a nickname for a night watchman, dating back to 1663. It’s possible that the name simply went from the night watchman (a man holding a lantern) to the lantern itself. An Irish legend tells of a miserly man named Stingy Jack who, while alive, tricked the Devil into agreeing not to take him into Hell. Upon his death, St. Peter wouldn’t let Jack into Heaven, because he had been too stingy and sinful. The Devil wouldn’t let him into Hell because of the deal they’d made. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
I hope you enjoyed my “All Hallows’ Eve” post!
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