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What are the origins of Halloween?

Where did all the trick-or-treating, pumpkin-carving, and costumes come from?
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Alexandra Grigorescu, October 28, 2013 2:34:59 PM

Dear reader,

Halloween wasn’t always the monster mash that it is today.

Long before October 31st became synonymous with horror movies, costumes and oodles of candy; it was a source of crime and great controversy.

Halloween is actually an amalgam of several different festivals and religions. It was born out of Samhain, or “summer’s end” in Gaelic, which was a Celtic pagan festival that marked the passage from summer to wintertime on October 31. With the changing of the seasons came the perceived threat of supernatural mischief, and so Druids (or Celtic priests), built giant bonfires, sacrificed livestock, and held community feasts to ward off trouble. The Celts would do this all while wearing animal skins and masks – the beginning of modern-day costumes.

Then along came the Romans. When they conquered the previously Celtic territories of England, Scotland and Northern France in early A.D., they also incorporated their own celebrations into late October known as the festivals of Feralia: One would honour the dead, while the other paid tribute to the Roman Goddess of Fruit, Pomona (she would later become the inspiration behind the tradition of bobbing for apples).

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So who decided to call it ‘Halloween?’ Well, Christianity did. Pope Gregory III established November 1 as All Saints’ Day to celebrate saints and martyrs (it was originally observed on May 13). By 1000 A.D., Christianity had superseded most Celtic influence. As a means to cater to the cultural history of the region, November 2 became known as All Souls’ Day, designated to honour the dead in a manner okayed by Christianity while incorporating elements of Samhain. October 31st, the original date of Samhain, was dubbed All Hallows Eve, and eventually, Halloween.

After that, the practice of dressing up in ghoulish costumes developed out of the superstitious notion that wandering ghosts might mistake you for one of their own, and therefore spare you.

But Halloween changed yet again after arriving on North American shores. An influx of Irish immigrants escaping the Potato famine helped spread the tradition, and gradually, it became increasingly secular throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Sharing ghost stories and enjoying communal feasts overtook the consideration of martyrs, and after a century of trying to suck the superstition and high-jinks out of the day, it was finally relegated to the kids.

And that’s when kids did what they do best – run amok. Vandalism, egging, and toilet-papering all became associated with Trick-or-Treating. Many homeowners actually began offering up candy and other treats as a kind of bribe against any mischievous attacks. In the ’30s, as Halloween-related vandalism reached new heights, outraged adults compared it to racketeering, as in this Oregon newspaper excerpt from 1934: “Other young goblins and ghosts, employing modern shake-down methods, successfully worked the ‘trick-or-treat’ system in all parts of the city.”

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But why were kids going door-to-door in the first place? Trick-or-treating is actually believed to have begun out of the practice of “souling,” an English and Irish custom of door-to-door solicitation for food in exchange for prayers for the dead. Homeowners only gave up the goods out of fear that ghosts and demons could mask themselves as beggars, and denying them food meant risking supernatural vengeance. Scotland actually has its own form of trick-or-treating, called guising, where the canvassing kids are required to earn their candy through small performances.

Today’s Halloween is radically different from where it began. And ironically, despite the sway that Christianity once held over the tradition, many now decry it — and they’re not alone. The holiday has seen its share of naysayers, from urban legends touting candy filled with razorblades or poison, to what some might call over-enthusastically gory displays of home decoration, but most agree it’s all in good fun. And while commercialization has stripped much of the religious and harvest undertones of the season, at least we still have piles and piles of candy to look forward to. Happy Halloween!

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Alexandra Grigorescu

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