This is Halloween

Boys and ghouls of every age, are you ready to learn about something strange? Come with me and you will see and learn the history behind Halloween!

Tim Burton’s 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas.

This week I wanted to do something more lighthearted than the other topics I have recently written about. So, I am not doing any deep analysis of dark tourism, authenticity, ownership or defending my discipline. Instead, I wanted to explore one of my favourite holidays and show how interesting the history behind celebrations can be!

There is no better holiday than one where you can dress up, go out after the street lights turn on, stay up past your bedtime, decorate your house with skeletons, and fall asleep surrounded by Mars Bar and Skittles wrappers, change my mind. Is there anything truly better than going to haunted houses, pumpkin patches, being covered in fake blood, and watching Hocus Pocus or Nightmare Before Christmas?

We have come to know Halloween as a night for children to run around and live out their dreams as their favourite trademarked superhero or princess. Costumes that probably cost parents the same amount of money I spend on groceries in a month. I have heard it described as a commercial holiday that gives us a break between stuffing our faces with turkey and stuff gifts underneath a green pine tree. I mean, you don’t even get Halloween off from work or school, so why is it so ingrained in our culture?

Would you be surprised to know that the fanfare of Halloween is kind of a North American thing? This isn’t to say that Halloween isn’t celebrated to some extent in other countries (as I have heard that the American version of Halloween has spread to the UK and Australia, albeit to a much, much, much smaller degree). Hell, the Halloween that I know and love today, isn’t what Halloween looked like a couple hundred years ago.

Does this mean that other countries don’t celebrate something on October 31st? No! Because Halloween came from other holidays that have celebrated the end of the harvest and the thinning of the spirit world’s veil for centuries. So, where does our Halloween come from?


Samhain

While I celebrate Halloween just as every other Canadian does, within my religion of Wicca (Celtic Wiccan specifically), I also celebrate Samhain. In the simplest terms, Samhain marks the end of the harvest as the “dark half of the year” comes in (Samhain marks the midpoint between the Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice, and since we are awaiting the sun god’s birth on December 21st, the nights become longer). [1] The day following Samhain was for a while viewed as the Celts’ New Years.

But, October 31st also marks something else important to to Celtic Wiccans and other Pagans/Neopagans. October 31st is the time where the spirit world’s veil is the thinnest, meaning its an opportune time to speak to dead loved ones. But it also means things we don’t want can cross over too.

Traditionally, since the veil is thin, many Wiccans will use the time to communicate with their ancestors, through seances or by simply leaving a candle in your most westerly window to guide them home for the night. Unless your a practitioner, you tend not to do that on Halloween? Maybe you use a Ouija board (which I urge against)? Either way, this tradition is kind of specific to the religion, but remember its not just loved ones that cross over.

Other creatures can cross over…


The Roots of a Celebration

Since ancient Celts believe that other creatures could cross over during this time, they had to protect themselves. Let’s see the roots of some of our favourite Halloween traditions:

Trick or Treat!

What happens when you are face to face with a demon or mischievous creature on your door stop? Perhaps you should feed them so they don’t eat you?

In order to appease any malicious spirits or creatures on Samhain, Celts left offerings outside of their homes or villages. These offerings consisted of food and drink, perhaps even some of the crops from the harvest. [2]

Now a days, when face to face with a six-year old dressed as Spiderman, all you have to do is offer a bowl of candy.

I don’t know which is scarier, a six-year old on a sugar high or Sluagh coming to collect my soul? (Definitely the sugar high six-year old!)


To Dress Up or Not to Dress Up

Victorian Halloween costumes are always the creepiest.

With the onslaught of creatures roaming our world during Samhain, looking to take our soul or kidnap us, if we want to go out, we needed to blend in. It was said that the ancient Celts would dress up in animal skins in order to disguise themselves and confuse the creatures. [3] There is also some evidence to suggest that the Celts also would dress as their dead ancestors. [4] Either way, this allowed them to go out that night and avoid being kidnapped or possessed.

To connect this to the origins of Trick-or-Treating, at some point, Celts dressed up and actually went to their neighbours houses and received food or drink. [5] Which happily merges two of the best parts of Halloween and Samhain, costumes and treats.


Jack the Pumpkin King

While it wasn’t always pumpkins, the use of carving some kind of root vegetable or gourd and lighting it with a candle has been around for a long time. Depending on the location, the tradition and origin varies. The most common belief is that to trick the creatures into thinking you or your house is already haunted by a wandering spirit, you would carve a face on some sort of vegetable and put a candle inside. The eerie appearance of a face was enough to convince the spirit to skip your house. [6]


Christianity’s Influence

Like many other Celtic traditions, when the Romans came over to the UK, Christianity began to influence these traditions (the story of Yule is probably the most fascinating). The seventh century saw the decree of November 1st as All Saints Day by Pope Boniface IV, with October 31st becoming All Hallows’ Eve (later shortened to Halloween). [7] All Hallows’ Eve was still marked by dressing up and bonfires, but now with the added connection of Christianity, a similar scenario that occurred with Yule.


Coming to America

With waves of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 19th century, the rise of Halloween in America became evident. Irish immigrants brought over their traditions of carved gourds, food offerings and costumes with them to their new homes. The traditions of those in Ireland began to merge with other European and local Indigenous traditions and thus our beloved Halloween was created. Although there is evidence to suggest that Colonial America did have some Halloween traditions, it was limited to Maryland and some southern states because of the prominence of the Protestantism. [8]

The rise in Halloween’s popularity truly can be accredited to the surge of Irish immigrants in the 19th century due to the potato famine. [9]


So Who Cares?

I guess that’s the number one question historians are asked, why should I care? I think there are a few takeaways, even from a work, as lighthearted as this!

  1. A lot of our favourite holidays actually came from pagan festivities. Due in part to the rise and spread of Christianity, holidays such as Halloween, Christmas and yes, even Easter started as pagan holidays!
  2. Even with pagan roots, many holidays, through contact and immigration, have become almost melting pots in of themselves. The mix and adopting of different traditions is what has created the holidays we have come to know and love.
  3. Holidays have a long, fascinating history. They are proof of a community’s strength as the traditions are still carried on til this day. They show how every generation can adapt and adopt the traditions to fit their own families. (Like Hanukkah trees, combining Hanukkah and the Christmas tree!)
  4. The change of holidays over time can reveal immigration patterns (Halloween only really began to pick up during the rise in Irish immigration, meaning larger settlements of Irish would see a rise in their traditions) and patterns in religion (pagan religions once were the prominent belief in many northern European countries, but as Christianity spread, Christianity influenced the way these populations would celebrate in the future).

In the end, I think we should all care. Holidays (no matter which one you celebrate) impact and can shape our lives. They are something many of us look forward to, for one reason or another and there is value in looking at their history.


Trick or Treat?

Instead of a trick, I will give my blog readers a little treat. Here is a collection of me through out the years on Halloween~

Happy Halloween everyone and thanks for reading!

~Kat

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