Monsters, vampires, ghouls, ghosts, mummies, zombies, and witches: the gang’s nearly here for Halloween— the season of superstition and celebration. Undeniably, one of the most ancient and popular holidays observed in a number of countries. Believed to originate from Celtic Festival of Samhain, Halloween comes with a number of strange and bizarre traditions. So, how did a somber pagan ritual transform to a day of costumes, parades and sweet treats for children and adults? How did it become a continental festival rather than an ethnic one?
Here’s the spooky origin of this sugar- and scare-filled holiday.
Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain pronounced as “sowen” which means summer’s end. The Celts were Europe’s early tribe who celebrated their new year with bonfires on October 31 which marked the end of summer and the harvest; and the beginning of the dark, cold winter. The Celts believed this transition between the seasons made time and space permeable. This meant that the dead could walk among the living, and that humans could get trap in other world as well.
Because of the extremely superstitious nature of the Celts, it became necessary to take certain precautions. They would wear ghoulish costumes so that wandering spirits would mistake them for one of their own and leave them alone. Others offered sweets to the spirits to appease them. These practices were probably the earliest roots of what we know as Halloween costumes.
Lightning of large bonfires also characterized the Samhain celebration. The Celts thought bonfires to be a cleansing ritual including the symbolic acts that went along with it such as throwing the bones of newly slaughtered livestock into the flames and other forms of sacrifice. During the ritual, many insects, rodents, and bats would get attracted to the flames, the reason why these animals were associated to Halloween until today.
The same people were to be held responsible for the ritual of carving pumpkins. However, the Celts used turnips for lanterns not pumpkins as they were readily available to them. Carving ghoulish faces into the crop is also believed to ward off evil spirits. When the Romans took over these lands, many of their traditions and customs melded into those of the Celts like the Feralia, a public religious ceremony held to honor the dead. Because the event took place in late October also, it was eventually combined with the Festival of Samhain. Aside from this, the church also used these holidays with a Christian twist to bring paganism and Christianity together, making it easier for local populations to convert to the state religion.
Irish immigrants brought the tradition to America, home of the pumpkin. Eventually pumpkins replaced turnip lanterns because they were easier to carve and were more accessible. Along with carving of pumpkins, was the decorating jack-o’- lanterns which came from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack.
According to the story, Stingy Jack was a bad man who enjoyed playing many practical jokes on innocent victims. One day, he invited the Devil to have a drink with him. But Jack did not want to pay for the drink so he convinced the Devil to turn into a coin that he could use to buy their drinks. True to his name, he kept the money instead putting it to his pocket next to a silver cross which prevented the Devil to go back to his original form. Eventually Stingy Jack, freed the Devil under the condition that he would never claim his soul when he died. The year after that, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing a tree to pick a fruit. Once the Devil was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the trunk preventing the Devil to go down. For the second time, Jack made the Devil promise not to bother him for ten more years. When Stingy Jack died, he was not accepted in Heaven for he was far too evil but the Devil had honored his promise of not claiming his soul as well. Jack had no choice but to roam around the earth for eternity. Despite being tricked twice, the Devil gave Jack a parting gift; an eternally burning ember, which Jack placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to light his way through his eternal wandering.
Halloween’s practices have changed with the culture of the day. Halloween costumes like ghosts, witches, fairies or vampires became fashionable making the holiday became more commercialized. The selection of disguises for kids and adults has also greatly expanded from superheroes to princesses to politicians. Halloween may have changed, but its purpose of honoring the dead for centuries has remained the same until today.