Make no mistake, Halloween is an interesting marriage. In the classic American way, we’ve managed to take bits and piece from many cultures to form one massive melting pot of candy and costumes. But where did these bits and pieces come from?
The holiday obtained its name from “O Hallow’s Even”, meaning “All Saint’s Evening”. This was the night before “All Saint’s Day”, or as we better know it, “The Feast of All Saints”. The Roman Catholics use this holiday to honor those unknown saints who were persecuted and died in the name of their lord. The following day, dubbed “All Soul’s Day”, commemorates those who died and have yet to find their way to the gates of heaven. In some cultures, it is thought that the departed souls are aware of these benedictions, and food may be left out for them.
In the Celtic world, Samhain is the harvest festival and the beginning of the new year. For the Celts, this was a time when the veil between this word and the other dims, so that all spirits are allowed passage. In the dim of night they could be seen roaming the land, ghostly visages that both terrify and fascinate.
The Halloween tradition of masks and dressing up to scare also dates back to the Celts. These people were intelligent and creative, but very superstitious. In a time when lightning was a sign of a god’s wrath, when the people weren’t always certain the sun would rise the next day after the darkness of night, they did what they could to ward off the evil spirits that lurked in the woods. And during the time when the veil between this world and the otherworld was thinnest, they would don masks and dress as ghouls with the hope that these spirits would pass them over, and wouldn’t drag them away. Even the children were disguised.
Pagans believed the head was the embodiment of knowledge and the soul. They would carve turnips into grotesque faces and leave them outside their dwelling to warn off the spirits. Later, this practice melded with an old tale of Stingy Jack, who trapped the devil in a tree and carved a cross into the bark. The devil punished Stingy Jack by condemning him to wander the dark world with only one light; a candle lit inside a carved turnip, henceforth known as “Jack of the Lantern”. In America, where pumpkins are plentiful and easier to carve, this myth gave birth to the Jack-o-Lantern as we know it. Before that, carving pumpkins was believed to be more of a harvest festival activity. It wasn’t “acknowledged” as having anything to do with Halloween until around 1866.
On the Isle of Man, the holiday Hop-tu-Naa predates Halloween. The children dressed in scary costumes and ran from house to house, begging for candies or coins. Rather than pumpkins (which could get bulky) they carried small carved turnips with a candle inside to light their way. Sometimes they would use turnips to bang on the doors until someone answered. Young voices would floating hauntingly up the hills, singing “Jinnie the Witch”.
After the Romans conquered Great Britain, these holidays and traditions slowly began to merge. And as European immigrants came to America, they brought these traditions with them. As the Irish fled the potato famine and came overseas, going door to door asking for food or money became common practice, and was usually handled by the children. As time passed, people started to dress in costume and adapt this tradition. This, combined with the influence of Hop-tu-Naa, was the birth of trick-or-treating.
In the early nineteen hundreds there was an attempt to keep what was seen by some as an “evil pagan holiday”, family-oriented. Protestants were determined to take anything deemed excessively scary or un-Christian out of Halloween. It became a holiday for community parties, with much of the original meaning of the holiday forgotten, or ignored. After the baby-boom of the nineteen fifties, these civic parties were placed back into the hands of local neighborhoods, where candy was handed out to the costumed children with the hope that they all would return safely to their homes.
We carry out these traditions today. Local churches hold parties in the hopes to keep the evil out. And though our costumes may not be as frightening, we still look to ward off the evil that may lurk in the shadows outside. We light the insides of our houses as we decorate the outside, hoping to be as scary as we can. Pumpkins guard our doors. Many people still claim to be more “on their toes” during Halloween, no matter their religious background.
Late at night when the candy is gone and the kids are in bed, if you look outside in the brisk air and stare at the moon as people did hundred of years ago, you’ll experience the same chill that the celts felt deep in their bones. You’ll look at the decorated houses around the neighborhood and wonder what ills they’re trying to keep away. And you’ll want to go back inside, and leave the darkness behind you.