Spooky season has now begun and we all know how we celebrate Halloween today– going door-to-door trick-or-treating, watching horror films, and carving pumpkins– but do you know how Halloween was originally started?
Halloween started with the Celts 2,000 years ago. The Celts were an Irish tribe that originated from central Europe and expanded throughout most of Europe. The Celts believed that the night before the new year, which for them was November 1, the line between the world of the living and the dead became thin and permeable.
On October 31, they celebrated the day they believed that spirits could walk the Earth again. To mark the momentous occasion, they built massive sanctified bonfires where everyone gathered and sacrificed their crops and animals which they believed would make it easier for spirits to cross over and spend the night on earth with the living. Many wore costumes during this sacred ceremony while trying to predict each other’s future, something the Druids or Celtic priests did on that day too. After the ceremony ended, the Celts would relight the fires in their homes with flames from the sanctified bonfire to symbolize their hope of surviving the coming winter.
These traditions evolved into the annual holiday we celebrate today. Its journey to becoming a holiday was not a smooth one, though, because of what many Christians believed before the tradition caught on in the US during the late 1800s. Many people believed that Halloween and everything associated with it was Satan’s doing. If someone celebrated the holiday, many Christians, especially the Puritans in colonial New England, believed that he or she was willingly letting Satan into his or her life and was therefore considered evil. Halloween was more likely to be celebrated in Maryland and the southern colonies in the early history of this country, and it was celebrated by neighbors telling stories about the dead, dancing, singing, and telling each other’s fortunes.
Not many states in the U.S celebrated this holiday until the late 1800s when it caught on rapidly. At that point, Americans celebrated Halloween by gathering together and celebrating with their neighbors, rather than focusing on the supernatural or tricks. Halloween became a time for parties for both children and adults and a common way to celebrate each October. People played games, ate seasonal snacks, wore costumes, and, most importantly, had fun. Newspaper reporters encouraged people of all ages to celebrate and move away from the scarier aspects of the holiday. Halloween took hold in its new form by the early twentieth century, and by then most people had forgotten its roots.
Besides parties, today we have another special way of celebrating Halloween: Trick-or-Treating. America borrowed this concept from European traditions. Trick-or-Treating started out with children going door to door around their neighborhoods to ask for either money or food. This tradition first appeared in the U.S in the early 1920s, based on very old traditions that went by a different name. “Souling” or “Guising” was based on Celtic customs and adopted by Christians starting in the 9th century. Adults would go door-to-door promising to pray for homeowners’ dead relatives and get a treat out of it. This tradition was later picked up by children, who dressed in costume, and instead of offering prayers for the dead, demanded treats in exchange for not playing a trick on the homeowner. This tradition has evolved into an exciting event that kids look forward to every October 31st, so much so that Halloween is now the 2nd largest commercial holiday in the U.S (I bet you can guess which is the first!). There are not many tricks these days, but there are lots of yummy treats.
Today, there are also countdowns featuring all the best Halloween-themed films. A few of the greats are Hocus Pocus, Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride’ and The Nightmare Before Christmas, Halloween, and the classic Edward Scissorhands. All are amazing films to get you in the spirit of this spooktacular season.
(Copyright Jocelyn O’Keeffe 2020)