A History of Halloween

All this week we’ll be posting for Halloween, and to get us all started and on the same page we’ll talk about where this oddest of America celebrations comes from and what it means. Here is a history of Halloween.

An Irish Halloween Party

An Irish Halloween Party

The earliest origins of Halloween began with the Celtic people of Europe, who were pagan.  Paganism basically honors many gods, usually with a supreme father god and mother goddess and many gods and goddesses who take special care of one particular aspect of life, such as weather, childbirth, war, and so on.  Paganism also acknowledges devils and evil, but does not and never has worshiped evil.  Despite many peoples’ beliefs, the history of Halloween is not a Satanic one.

A modern day Samhain celebration

A modern day Samhain celebration

Celts held a major celebration on the 1st day of November called Samhain.  It was the celebration of the harvest, a time to thank their gods, and a time to prepare for the coming winter.  They believed that on the night preceding Samhain the barrier between this world and the next was very thin.  Spirits, including honored family members, great heroes, and also evil malignant spirits could come to earth for this one night. They set places at their tables for family members who had passed on and warded off evil spirits with carved turnips, sporting candles, in the window and plates of food on the doorstep to avoid tricks from evil spirits.  If anyone had to go out at night they wore a mask and costume to fool the evil spirits into thinking they were not themselves.  They would have community gatherings in the dark with a sacred bonfire, lit by the priest.  Everyone would light their home hearth with flame from this sacred fire for the coming cold season.  Also at this time the priest would prophesy of the future for the community.

These traditions continued until Christianity came to the Celts.  The Celts accepted the faith, but simply added the Christian gods to their own, keeping on with all the old traditions.   In an effort to stamp this out the Catholics instituted All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day, on November first to replace Samhain.  (The Catholics did the same thing to Christmas and Easter, with more success at changing the meanings to truly Christian ones.) The night before All Hallows Day became known as All Hallows Eve.   The costumes, the carved turnips, and the bonfires were continued, but a great many superstitions were added involving witches, divination of future events, and a Christian version of ghoulies and ghosties.  The Christian version is at least as gruesome as the Celtic one had been.

Americans, mostly Christian Protestants, didn’t have much luck throwing out the tradition or the superstitions, but rejected the Catholic religious overtones wholesale.  Today most Americans see the holiday as a harmless children’s celebration and night of fun.  It no longer has any religious significance and its original meaning has been completely lost, though many of the traditions survived a dozen centuries to give us costumes, trick-or-treating, carved pumpkins, and ghost stories.  When you look at the history of Halloween, our traditions become clear.

Our two families live 800 miles or so apart, but we love to get the cousins together at Halloween to go trick-or-treating with all ten of our kids.  And yes, the grown-ups dress up and go too!

Our two families live 800 miles or so apart, but we love to get the cousins together at Halloween to go trick-or-treating with all ten of our kids. And yes, the grown-ups dress up and go too!

Additional Layers

  • Try carving a turnip.  Now you know why Americans switched to pumpkins.
  • If you were a kid or parent in the 1980’s you might remember the big time scares about poisoned candy or candy with razor blades in them.  Was there ever anything to fear and how did this fear change Halloween?
  • Do you believe in ghosts?  What is a ghost?
  • Learn more about ancient pagan beliefs of the Celts, which were very different from Greek or Roman paganism.
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3 Responses to A History of Halloween

  1. Lisa says:

    Turnips are actually pretty easy to carve, but require different techniques than pumpkins. I use an apple corer to hollow out the inside. You want the walls of the turnip to be very thin, between 1/4 and 1/8 inch thick so they will be rather translucent. Then you actually carve the face on the outside of the turnip. Make sure the knife doesn't go all the way through the turnip wall, just carve down enough to be able to remove the skin (leave the wall there, just take off the skin where you want the eyes, mouth, etc.) The walls will be thin enough that the candle light will shine through where the skin has been removed.

  2. Lisa says:

    Oops, make that 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.

  3. Karen says:

    We may just have to try that one of these days…I'd love to see tiny turnips out there beside our giant jack-o-lanterns. (:

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