Halloween as we know it today is a far cry from its Celtic roots. Over the course of about 2,000 years, Halloween has evolved from a tradition of warding off evil spirits to a fun festival for children to dress up and eat lots of candy. Let's explore how we got there...
Late October was a time of harvest for the Celtic people of Europe who lived around 2000 years ago in modern day Wales, Brittany and Cornwall. After the fruits, vegetables, and beans were all plucked from the plants, the remaining vegetation was left to die off with the coming crisp air of autumn. Our ancient ancestors believed that as the world began its descent into cold, death and darkness, the spirits of the same description began to emerge and walk among us. Because of this belief, many rituals were performed to appease the spirit world in hopes of being protected from its malevolent forces.
One ritual involved a community-wide bonfire where food and animals were sacrificed while the townsfolk danced, adorned with the heads and hides of dead animals. Prior to the lighting of the bonfire, families would put out the hearth-fires in their homes. Then, upon returning home, would relight their hearth-fire with a flame taken from the community bonfire. Their belief was that this new flame would protect them from evil spirits, disease and death during the long, cold winter, as though it was blessed by the offerings given to the fire hours earlier during the ritual.
Samhain, a Gaelic festival, was similarly celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and Isle of Man. They too believed that this time of year ushered in the dawning of the "dark" time and that ceremony was required to protect themselves from the potential dangers of evil spirits. It was believed that during the night between October 31st and November 1st, the veil between the underworld and the world above was thined, making it easier for spirits to visit and make trouble. People offered food, drink and praise to their dead ancestors in exchange for peace and good health.
When Christianity moved through Europe, church officials began to label these celebrations as devil worshiping. Though Christians fought hard to extinguish these celebrations, they were unsuccessful in doing so and had to find a workaround. Quickly, they began All Saints Day (and later All Souls Day), on November 1st, to honor the Christian saints, believing this to now become a celebration of lightness and not darkness. Eventually, this led to the merging of the two ideas. Now, beggars would go door-to-door, receiving "soul cakes" in exchange for prayer for the saints to bless their homes.
While this shift may have lightened the appearance of Halloween, many still honored their traditional way of protecting themselves from evil spirits during this time, but behind closed doors. Some of the activities spilled out over time such as kids knocking on doors requesting treats and if not given them, vandalism could ensue. While this was a problem in many parts of Europe, it was still localized to a few poor areas, therefore, not a wide-spread dilemma for all.
Fast forward to the early 19th century as those poor European immigrants flooded the streets of America, bringing their traditions with them. As children (many times orphans) formed groups, or gangs if you will, Halloween quickly evolved into a time of serious mischief. It became an opportunity for those kids to make some money, get fed or clothed by way of threat to homeowners and citizens.
By the 1930's, this practice had progressed into full blown anarchy on the night of Halloween. Large numbers of youth would break windows, start fires, steal farm wagons, open barn doors to let the animals out, and vandalize anything they wished. America realized that Halloween was quickly becoming a real problem.
Communities were forced to come together to find solutions. A strong marketing campaign was devised to turn Halloween into a night of fun parties, costumes and kid-friendly games to keep the youth entertained so they wouldn't cause problems. To the surprise and delight of many, it worked! Over time, companies began creating products specifically for Halloween using symbols borrowed from many stories over the years such as Jack-o-lanterns, witches, black cats, skeletons, ghosts, and more.
Today, Halloween marks a time when people of all ages can come out and enjoy the silliness of dressing up in costume, visiting haunted houses, trick-or-treating and having a great time with friends. While the history of Halloween is laced with darkness, what it has evolved into is full of lightness, excitement and fun!
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