Halloween is known by many names some of which are Samhain, Summer’s End, Lamswool, All Hallow’s Eve, Witches Night, and Snap-Apple night. It is believed to be one of the oldest holidays in the world. Halloween, as it is known today, started as an ancient pagan tradition before it was adopted and reinvented by Christians. Halloween traditions and customs have evolved into different forms. It is a blend of tradition and modern acts of public exhibitionism.
Halloween in some places is highly commercialized and strongly connected to the Halloween tradition of the United States. With the help of traditional and social media, movies, television shows, and the Internet, American Halloween is increasing in popularity year after year. It has become one celebration enjoyed by kids, teens, and adults alike. Knowing the origins of this spooky celebration is a way to understand the different Halloween customs and traditions of today.
Summer’s End or Samhain is believed to be the origin of Halloween. This is an ancient Celtic festival that signaled the end or death of summer. It also celebrated the start of the New Year for the Celts (people from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, Britanny and northern France). The Celts saw Samhain as a sacred festival because it marked the border between summer (life) and winter (death). Samhain was a moment of change; a night filled with magic and power for these ancient people.
It was believed that Saman, the Lord of Death, called together all the spirits of the people that died the year before to make their way to the afterlife on October 31, the day of the Vigil of Samhain. Demons, as well as the ghosts of their ancestors, were free to roam the lands, cause trouble and even harm crops. The Celts at that time would disguise themselves by wearing ghoulish costumes and masks. This was to make the spirits think that the living were also spirits like them, causing them no harm. This practice was called guising (same as disguising). The costumed Celts would form a parade and lead the spirits out of their towns and villages.
The Celts had their own version of trick-or-treating. Food was offered to Saman in the hopes that he could be persuaded to be a more lenient judge to their ancestors. They used food to appease the spirits who were looking to harm them or have food on hand for their ancestors who would be roaming their towns and villages on that night.
Contribution of the Romans
When the Romans began conquering the lands of the Celts, they assimilated some of the rituals and traditions of the Celts and also added to them. Back then, the Romans celebrated a festival in honor of the Goddess of Harvest, Pomona, every November 1st. One of the traditions the Romans practiced was the use of apples during the festival. Apples were closely associated with Pomona. For the Romans, it symbolized love and fertility. This particular fruit found its way into the autumn Celtic festival Samhain.
Influence of Christianity
Christianity, in its efforts to evangelize the pagans, adopted many pagan symbols and rites. Back then, it was the belief of the church’s powers-that-be that by using the pagan symbols and incorporating pagan rites into Christian rituals in some way or form, the pagans would be more comfortable in letting go of their beliefs and trading these in for Christianity. The church gradually absorbed the Celtic Samhain and the Roman Pomona festival into the Catholic tradition of observing All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
During Pope Gregory III’s time, All Saints’ Day, known in England as All Hallow’s Day, was observed on May 1st. The Pope moved the day to November 1 so that it would coincide with the Celtic and Roman pagan festivals. October 31st, the night before All Saints’ Day, was called All Hallow Even. After sometime, it was known as Hallowe’en then eventually Halloween.
The Cluniacs, an order of French monastics, instituted All Souls’ Day for Christians to remember specifically their deceased loved ones. All Souls’ Day was observed on November 2, just as it is today. The three days from October 1st to November 2nd were called Hallowmas. “Hallow” means “holy” or “sanctified.”
The shrewd church leaders at that time reworked many of the pagan customs and traditions. The Church encouraged the faithful to pray for their departed loved ones instead of offering sacrifices or vying for “soul cakes.” To appease the spirits, instead of offering food and wine, Christians carried hallowed out turnips that contained a lighted candle from house to house. The candle was a symbol for a soul in purgatory. They offered prayers for their dearly departed.
Parishioners from poor churches who could not pay for real relics of holy saints instead held a procession. They wore clothes that made them look like angels, devils and saints. This was similar to the pagan tradition of parading to limits of the town or village in order to lure the spirits out.
As the Middle Ages were coming to a close in Europe, Hallowmas became an important liturgical tradition.
Protestant Reformation’s 360-degree turn
Protestant sects banned many Catholic traditions, one of them being Hallowmas. The English Protestants incorporated several elements from the pagan festivals and came up with Guy Fawkes Day.
Guy Fawkes Day celebrated, and continues to celebrate, the triumph of the Protestant over a plot to blow up the House of Lords (then sympathetic to the Protestants) on the 5th of November 1605. Guy Fawkes, a Catholic, was said to have been the leader of the plot. He was caught, hanged and quartered for his actions. The night before Guy Fawkes Day was called “mischief night.” Young boys wore costumes and begged for coal to be used in burning effigies of Guy Fawkes or the Pope. Even unpopular politicians were not sparred. Their effigies were sometimes burned on the eve of Guy Fawkes Day. To re-enact the punishment Guy Fawkes went through, a scarecrow figure was paraded through the streets. Some of these traditions are still being done today.
Halloween in America
When the Irish and the Scots first came to America, they brought with them the Hallowmas tradition. The British also brought with them their own beliefs and introduced Guy Fawkes Day. After the American Revolution, Halloween became a festival celebrated by the community rather than by the churches.
Irish immigrants who arrived in the U.S. from 1820 – 1870 brought with them traditions and folk beliefs connected to Halloween. Americans embraced these traditions and beliefs and put their own spin on them. For example, the symbol of Halloween, the Jack O’Lantern, came from the Irish. Its origin is from an Irish tale about a man named Jack who used trickery to trap the devil inside a tree. Masquerades and house-to-house visits were emphasized giving birth to trick-or-treating. When other immigrant groups arrived from Europe and Africa, they added their own unique traditions to Halloween in the U.S.
Today, America’s version of Halloween is regarded as a time to have fun and let loose. It’s a much-awaited holiday for both the kids and adults. Trick-or-treating requires serious planning as it involves kids wearing costumes and homeowners decorating their property and preparing candies to give away. Adults get to dress up in costumes to enjoy a night of being someone else for a change. Some costumes are elaborate and require weeks of planning while others are store-bought or done at the spur-of-the-moment using whatever materials are available close by. Companies, stores, restaurants and other businesses take advantage of this holiday by creating marketing gimmicks and all sorts of activities, merchandise and the like. They are all hoping to cash in on the Halloween frenzy. Candy companies and costume makers make a killing this time of the year.
Halloween and Halloween-like customs and traditions worldwide
Observed every 31st of October in different parts of the world, the Halloween festival most people are familiar with is American Halloween. But there are also celebrations around the world that try to keep alive the original spirit of Halloween.
Austrians consider Halloween night as a magical time when the dead souls return to earth. To welcome these souls, Austrians put food on a table (usually bread), water and a lighted lamp.
Canadians celebrate Halloween pretty much like the Americans do. Homes are decorated with pumpkins, corn stalks and ghoulish props. Trick-or-treating is a big event for kids and parties happen on Halloween night. Immigrants brought some of these modern Halloween celebrations from Scotland and Ireland in the 1800s.
Teng Chieh is the Halloween festival of China. Pictures of departed family members are on display. Relatives place food and water before these images. In order to guide the spirits when they visit on Halloween night, the Chinese light bonfires and lanterns.
The French do not actually celebrate Halloween because they view it as a U.S. holiday. But since 1996, Halloween has slowly been creeping into the consciousness of the French. Certain groups, American businesses and corporations, have been trying their best to get the French to recognize and celebrate Halloween. Today, Halloween parties in France involve people dressed in traditionally “scary” attires. People dress as witches, vampires, mummies, ghosts and goblins rather than superheroes or cartoon characters. Trick-or-treat is highly uncommon. If there is trick-or-treating, it is done from store-to-store rather than from house-to-house. The French are quite indifferent to Halloween so it would be interesting to see how long the “holiday” will last in France.
Halloween night is the time Germans hide their knives for fear that the spirits of the dead might use them to harm the living.
Yue Lan is the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. This is the equivalent of Halloween in Hong Kong. For 24 hours, the spirits of the dead roam the earth. Pictures of money or of fruits are burned in the hopes that these will bring the ghosts some measure of comfort. The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts is observed in August.
It is believed that Halloween was first celebrated in Ireland as Oíche Shamhna or Samhain Night. Samhain is the Irish name for November. Samhain Night marked the harvest season’s end and the start of the darker half of the year (because the days are shorter and the nights longer).
During Halloween, both kids and adults wear outfits that make them look like creatures of the underworld or of the dark. Witches, goblin, ghost, ghouls and zombies are popular get-ups. Pumpkins or turnips (this being more traditional) are carved looking like scary faces. Candles or lights are placed inside the carved pumpkins or turnips giving it an eerie appearance. The barmbrack, a type of fruit bread with items baked into it, serves as the traditional cake for Halloween. Items one may find inside the baked bread are a stick, a coin, a ring, a pea or a piece of cloth. Each item has a meaning so it is exciting to see what one finds in his slice of barmbrack.
Children enjoy trick-or-treating and Halloween parties are commonplace. Games are played where participants bob for apples, other fruits, nuts and coins from a basin of water. People dance around lit bonfires and enjoy firework displays. In the Irish city of Derry, the largest Halloween celebration is held annually. There is a street carnival, fireworks display and other activities.
There are no Western Halloween customs in Japan. Instead, they celebrate Obon Festival, also called Urabon or Matsuri in Japanese. It is similar to the spirit of Halloween because it is dedicated to their departed ancestors. The Japanese believe that the spirits of their dearly departed come back to earth on Obon. Some do general house cleaning and cleaning of the graves. Altars are set up with food and candles. Bright red lanterns decorate homes and other places. Lit candles in lanterns are set to float on waterways like rivers and seas. The Obon Festival happens during the month of July or August.
Chusok is the festival similar to Halloween in Korea. Koreans pay tribute to their dead during this festival. Tombs of dead relatives are visited; rice, fruits and other foods are offered to their dear ancestors. Chusok is observed on the 8th month of the year.
Mexico and Latin American countries influenced by the Aztec
The ancient festival of the dead, Dias de los Muertos or the Days of the Dead, is a 3-day celebration beginning on October 31 and ending on November 2, All Souls’ Day or El Dia de los Muertos. Mexico and other Aztec-influenced countries in Latin America observe Dias de los Muertos. The original intention of this festival is to celebrate not only the dead but also the children. Mexicans and Latin American people remember their departed family members but at the same time celebrate life’s continuity. It is supposed to be a happy holiday because it is a time to remember loved ones who have passed away.
The dead are believed to find their way back to their homes during Halloween. Altars are decked with pictures of the dead, flowers, candies, and water. Some even place food and drinks that were once the favorites of their dead. Towels and washbasins are prepared for the spirits so they can wash up before “eating” their feast. To help the spirits find their way into the homes, candles and incense are left to burn.
On the 3rd day of the festival, relatives go to the gravesites of their family members to clean and update the gravesite, pray, reminisce and go on a picnic. Relatives decorate the site with flowers, wreaths, or streamers. It is not uncommon for tequila and mariachi bands to make their appearance at gravesites on this day.
Parades are common in villages where people dressed as skeletons dance and celebrate in the streets. A coffin with a living person lying inside of it is paraded around the village. Vendors toss sweets, fruits and flowers into the coffin. In homes, Bread of the Dead is baked. These are loaves of bread that may contain sugar skeletons or other edible items with the dead motif. In church, prayers are offered and candle ceremonies are performed. The three-day festival is all about the cycle of life, from birth to death.
Because of Western influence, Halloween has become a popular holiday in the capital region of the Philippines. Shopping centers, malls, and homes are decorated with traditional American Halloween images. Dressing up in costumes, hosting/attending Halloween parties and trick-or-treating are rising in popularity each year. October 31 is not a national holiday. Filipinos pay respect to their dead ancestors on November 1 and 2 by visiting gravesites of their dead.
For seven days, Sweden celebrates what is known as Alla Helgons Dag. This Halloween-like festival happens from the 31st of October to the 6th of November. All Saints’ Day is observed on the Saturday that follows the 30th of October. Swedish families visit their dearly departed and lay flowers and wreaths at their gravesite. Lit candles and lanterns illuminate the graveyards at night.
Fun facts associated with Halloween
• The colors of Halloween are orange and black. Orange represents autumn or the fall harvest. Black represents darkness and death.
• Pumpkins come in a variety of colors including orange, white, blue, yellow and green.
• To mislead ghosts and spirits roaming the countryside during Halloween, the ancient Celts wore masks and costumes.
• The most popular treat with trick-or-treaters is chocolate candy bars. Snickers is one of the top selling brands during Halloween.
• Black cats were said to be witches’ familiars. These felines protected the powers of witches.
• In the U.S., one quarter of the annual sales of candies is bought for the Halloween celebrations.
• Turnips, not pumpkins, were the first Jack O’Lanterns.
• Of all the holidays, Halloween is second to Christmas when it comes to commercial success in the U.S.
• Samhainophobia is the persistent or intense fear of Halloween.
• People who lived in Medieval Europe believed that owls were witches. So when they hear an owl hoot, this signified the impending death of a person.
• It was believed that a person just might see a witch at 12 in the evening if he wears his clothes inside out and walks backwards during Halloween.
• There are two places in the U.S. that have proclaimed themselves as the Halloween Capital of the World. One is Salem, Massachusetts and the other is Anoka, Minnesota.
• France and Australia are not big on Halloween because they see it as an overly commercialized American holiday.
After more than 2,000 years, Halloween, which originated from the Celts’ worship of the Lord of the Dead, is still here but in a different form. Today’s Halloween is about trick-or-treating, apple bobbing, costume parties, scary movies, fake ghouls, witches, vampires and other creatures of the night. The next day is usually a time for toothaches, tummy aches, and hangovers. October 31 is a night of pure fun, when people, kids and adults alike, can dress up as someone else and inhabit a new persona all in the name of fun.