Halloween: Its Meaning and Origins in History

  • All Hallows' Eve, from which we get the word "Halloween," is a holy night because it honors the dead. "
  • Halloween's origins can be traced back to a Samhain, a Celtic harvest festival.
  • The customs of dressing up as saints and knocking on neighbors' doors in search of treats on Halloween have their roots in a practice that dates back hundreds of years.

When the weather turns cool and you break out the sweaters and coats, it's time to decorate your porch with pumpkins and start carving scary faces. The 31st of October is Halloween, and that means it's almost time to dress up, hand out candy corn, play scary party games, and imbibe in adult-only alcoholic beverages.

With all the Halloween fun, does it ever cross your mind to investigate its background and find out whether it has pagan or Christian roots? The answer is that it is multifaceted and has evolved over time in tandem with secular popular culture. Let's take a deeper dive into the history of the holiday and its most celebrated customs.

The Meaning of Halloween

The origin of the modern English word Halloween can be traced back to the Christian festival of All Hallows' Eve. The Middle English and Old English roots for hallow both mean "holy." It can also be used as a noun meaning "holy man" or "saint." The Christian holiday we now call All Saints' Day was originally known as All Hallows' Day, and the evening before, when a special mass was celebrated, was known as All Hallows' Eve. This three-word celebration's name was shortened to Halloween over time.

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Bettmann // Graphics by Getty Images

As to why October 31 is the day we celebrate Halloween, consider the following:

Several modern Halloween customs are thought to have originated with the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain, which officially began on November 1 but was celebrated the night before. There was a significant shift in the seasons, but people also thought the veil between this world and the next was especially thin during this time of year, allowing them to communicate with the dead. This is also where the idea of "haunted" Halloween originates.

Getting to October 31 as the Christian equivalent of Halloween is a bit more convoluted. In the early seventh century, Pope Boniface IV established All Saints Day by devoting the Pantheon in Rome to the saints, but the date was actually May 13. When Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in St. Peter's Basilica the following century, he moved the celebration to November 1. Peter's Basilica, dedicated to the worship of the heavenly hosts To the Christian calendar, All Saints Day was added by Pope Gregory IV a century later, making the holiday universally celebrated in churches rather than just in Rome. After November 1's All Saints Day, on October 31's All Hallows' Eve, we celebrate the night before. Perhaps this was an attempt to balance out the paganism of Samhain with a religious holiday.

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Image Source: Getty Images

Traditions and Customs of Halloween

Because the ancient Celts practiced polytheism, the earliest celebration of Samhain, a pagan holiday, included elaborate rituals meant to foster communication with the dead. There isn't much we know for sure about these celebrations, but popular belief holds that the Celts wore masks and costumes (albeit crude animal hides) to ward off ghosts, held elaborate feasts, and carved lanterns out of gourds (hence the origin of jack-o'-lanterns) to light their way at night. Despite the gradual replacement of the holiday's pagan undertones by Christian ones, the holiday's core traditions live on in popular culture to this day, though they have naturally adapted and modernized over time.

Fun and games replaced the mysterious rituals of the past. Rather than focusing on the morbid idea of communicating with the dead, the focus shifted to the more whimsical concept of predicting the future. It was believed that the apple a woman bit into on All Hallows' Eve represented her future husband, so the game of bobbing for apples became popular as a form of fortune telling on that night. It's true that in the 19th century, young women had a huge (albeit superstitious) window of opportunity to find a suitor on Halloween.

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Looking into a mirror on All Hallows' Eve in the hopes of seeing one's future was another common practice. Favours similar to those found in modern-day fortune cookies were reportedly given out in the past, as well. Messages were written on milk-soaked paper, folded, and tucked into walnut halves. The milk inside the shells would brown when heated over a fire, and the message would magically appear on the paper.

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Traditions of Trick-or-Treating and Halloween Costumes

They say lots of people dressed up as saints and went door to door singing and reciting poetry. Soul cakes, which are kind of like biscuits, were another popular item that kids would ask for on their door-to-door begging rounds. To be more specific, soul cakes have their roots in the November 2 celebration of All Souls' Day (yes, a third holiday after Halloween and All Saints' Day). ) but eventually evolved into the custom of trick-or-treating associated with Halloween evening. In the United States, the candy-grabbing idea also went mainstream. S to protect their children from holiday pranks, families began doing this around the turn of the century.

The clothes changed as well. Originally intended as solemn homages to saints, the practice eventually faded out of favor, but was revived by pranksters in Scotland and Ireland looking to scare their unsuspecting neighbors. All of a sudden, thanks to these neighborhood thugs, Halloween costumes had a new level of spookiness, humor, originality, and fear factor.

How Modern-Day Halloween Is Celebrated

Today, Halloween is widely celebrated across the United States, but it almost didn't make it across the Atlantic. Because of its pagan origins, the Puritans disapproved of celebrating this holiday. Large public parties were held in American colonies to celebrate the upcoming harvest, tell ghost stories, sing, and dance.

As more people from Ireland and Scotland arrived in the United States in the second half of the 19th century, the celebration became widespread. It is believed that by the turn of the twentieth century, the vast majority of (candy-loving, costume-wearing) North Americans participated in Halloween festivities.

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Photos by Getty Images

As time goes on, Halloween customs change and develop. Some people skip the neighborhood trick-or-treating and instead participate in community trunk-or-treats, which are typically held in school or church parking lots and feature cars decked out in scary tailgate fashion. National Trick-or-Treat Day has been established for the last Saturday of October in 2019 as a result of a popular movement to reschedule Halloween. Yet, October 31 remains Halloween night, and it is up to community organizers to decide if and how they will observe the new National Trick-or-Treat Day.

Once again, on October 31, we will all be eating our favorite candies and admiring our neighbors' decorations, and the only spooky spirits we will be talking about are the ones our friends are wearing in their witch and ghost costumes.

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