Halloween is a time of fall festivals, pumpkin patches, trick or treating and parties. It is a time when I love to travel the back roads of the Midwest to see the changing of the fall foliage. While all of these things depict some of the ways we hit the road to celebrate this icon of autumn, the questions come to mind, how did this crazy idea of dressing up and trick or treating, stories of the dead and un-dead, and haunting come about?
The holiday began with Christian origins. All Hallows’ Eve is the traditional name for Halloween and marks the evening before the Christian holy day of All Hallows’ Day or All Saints Day. This time period also celebrates All Souls’ Day. The name Halloween is a contraction of the longer term All Hallows Evening. Hallow’s Eve kicks off the celebration that in Christian tradition lasted from From October 31st until November 2nd. Part of the tradition is to remember all those who have died, so that ties in the theme of live and death, the living remembering and celebrating the lives of those that went before.
All Souls Day celebrates those that died before us, is commemorated on November the 2nd. All Saints Day, celebrates all saints known and unknown on November 1st. Feasting and celebrating since early Christianity has been associated All Saint’s Day.
If I understood correctly, the day was originally in May, then moved to November where All Saint’s Day fell on the Celtic holiday of Sanhaim, a harvest celebration and acknowledgment of the close of fall and the arrival of the oncoming dark winter. Sanhaim had pagan origins tied to the slaughter of livestock to put up for winter. This was also a cleansing ritual which they believed allowed other world spirits and fairies to cross into the living world.
One site I found explained, “Celts also believed that it was the time when the walls between our world and the spirit world became thin, allowing ghosts to pass through and damage their crops. To mark the event, people would build huge bonfires to burn crops and give animal sacrifices to the gods.”
That same thought of spirits coming back to the living world evolved into the belief that dead family members could return home started the tradition of feasts with a seat at the table set for the loved one.
The UK “What is All Hallows’ Eve website states, “During festivities, the poor would visit the houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the homeowners’ dead relatives, a practice known as souling. This evolved into guising – where young people in Scotland and Ireland would dress up in costume and perform songs, poems or jokes in exchange for fruit and nut.”
Colonial Halloween festivities featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the middle of the nineteenth century, annual autumn festivities were common. The traditions became a melding of those taken to the US by immigrants in the early 1900s that is now known as trick-or-treating.
Over time, these traditions moved into the modern day Halloween.
So as you put out your Jack-o-lantern (which has its own story) or decorate for fall harvest, remember the beginnings of this important holiday that eases us from summer to fall and hints at the blush of winter clouds and short days.