We celebrate Halloween every October 31, but what do we really know about the history behind the holiday?
It's the season for ghosts, witches, and goblins to take the streets as they ask for candy ... scary movies are released in theaters (looking at you, It: Chapter Two) ... and pumpkins get carved into jack-o'-lanterns. But ... why? What prompted that behavior? Now, don't get me wrong. I love Halloween. It's easily one of my favorite holidays, and I celebrate it every year, but I quickly realized that I didn't really know very much about its history. So, I decided to take a deep dive into how Halloween came to be and how it has changed since it originated.
Halloween is a holiday that dates back nearly 2,000 years to a Celtic festival called Samhain ("summer's end" in Gaelic) that celebrated the end of the harvest season or new year, which fell on November 1. On the night before the new year, on October 31, the Celtic people believed ghosts of the dead would return to Earth and interact with the living. Bonfires were lit in honor of those who had passed and costumes worn to keep roaming spirits away from the living. What's disturbing is that the "costumes" were typically made of animal heads and skins. I mean, can you just imagine the smell?
By approximately 43 A.D., the Roman Empire was in control of a majority of the Celtic territory. Some scholars believe that during the 400 years the Roman Empire was in charge of the lands, Samhain got combined with two Roman festivals—Feralia and a day to honor the Roman goddess of the orchards and the harvest, Pomona. Feralia took place in late October, when the Romans celebrated the passing of the dead. And I wouldn't be surprised if we got the Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples from Pomona. But there is very little evidence—other than the time of year when the festivals were held—to confirm it.
In the mid-8th century, All Saints Day (also known as All Hallows Day) was moved by Pope Gregory III from May 13 to November 1, the same day as Samhain. By the 9th century, the Christian influence had reached the Celtic lands, and in 1000 A.D., the church made November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It is believed by many that the church was attempting to replace Samhain with a more church-sanctioned holiday (even though the traditions were basically the same). The day before All Hallows Day became known as All Hallows' Eve, which then turned into Halloween.
Journey to America
You're probably asking yourself, how did the holiday come to America? Well, American colonists were the ones to first bring Halloween to the United States. Since a majority of them were Puritans and from England, they brought with them the traditional Samhain celebration. All Hallows' Eve turned into "play parties," which were held to observe the harvest. In 1845, the Great Potato Famine struck and forced roughly one million people to emigrate from Ireland to the United States. Their history and traditions came with them, including Halloween. Borrowing from the Irish and English, Americans started to dress up in costumes and go asking for food or money, which became the "trick-or-treat" tradition we know today. During the late 1800s, Halloween became more about the community and parties rather than spirits and ghosts of the dead. Parties were held for all ages and were more likely to occur during the day than at night. The parties had games, food and, of course, costumes. At this point, the darker, more frightening aspects and religious components of the holiday were gone. Today, many of those same traditions are very much alive. We still dress in costumes, have parties, and go trick-or-treating!
Other Fun Historical Tidbits
Witches and Brew
Where did our idea of a witch—the pointy hat and broomstick—come from? Beer, according to BrewHoppin. That's right, witches were based on brewers, or brewsters, of the 15th and 16th centuries. Brewsters were referred to as "alewives" and "beer witches."
Back in that time, "a Henin or a shortened, brimmed version" of the pointed hat was the height of fashion. Plus, it helped the brewsters stand out in crowds, which was great for selling their brews. The broom, on the other hand, was used to inform potential customers that a brewster's home or tavern was a place of domestic trade. Another symbol was a talisman that closely resembled the Star of David, and it was used to let folks know the purity of the beer. It's said that the six points on the star represented the important parts of brewing: hops, grain, malt, yeast, water, and the brewer. Read more about the witches and brew here, including how the Catholic church became involved and declared that "women were inclined toward evil witchcraft and devil-worship."
Why do we hollow out pumpkins, carve faces and other images into them, and then illuminate them on our front porches for everyone to see? When looking at it from afar, it seems pretty, well, odd. But the myth behind jack-o'-lanterns is even stranger ... According to legend, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. But, as his name suggested, he was very stubborn and refused to pay for his drink. Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin so that he could buy the drinks. He kept the money instead, placing it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back. Eventually, the Devil was set free under the condition that he'd leave Jack alone for a year and that, if Jack were to die, he would not claim his soul.
So, a year passed, and Jack tricked the Devil to climb into a tree to pick a piece of fruit, only to trap him up there by carving a cross into the tree's bark. The Devil would not be able to come down unless he promised not to bother Jack for 10 more years. A short while later, Jack died. Apparently, legend says that God did not allow such an "unsavory figure" into heaven. The Devil even refused to let Jack into hell after all of the tricks he played on him. Instead, The Devil sent Jack into the darkness of the night with only a burning coal for light. He put the coal into a carved-out turnip. The Irish refer to Jack as "Jack of the Lantern," which then turned into "Jack O'Lantern." In Ireland and Scotland, Jack-o'-lanterns are carved into turnips and potatoes and placed in windows or doorways to keep Stingy Jack away. In England, large beets are used, while in America, we use pumpkins.
Do you have any other historical facts about Halloween that we missed? Share them with us. Happy Halloween!