The Story of Halloween
By Melissa Nickels, Feature Blogger
Halloween dates back to Ancient Celtic times, some 2,000 years ago. The Celts celebrated what they perceived as the New Year at the end of the summer and harvest season, every first of November, with a festival known as Samhain, which translates to “summer’s end.” Celebrations started on October 31 to get ready to start anew heading into the winter.
During the day, people extinguished any fires in the household, cleaned and gathered crops to place in storage. At sunset, people gathered in their local villages and lit giant bonfires; animal sacrifices were typically made and they'd throw in old crops. The fire symbolized the sun and was thought it would bring the blessing of the gods to the people and cleanse them. Once celebrations ended, families would take a burning ember or light a torch and return home to re-light their fires with the sacred flame; these fires continued day and night for a couple months, signifying protection from tragedy during the colder season.
During the celebrations, people wore ornate costumes (what we would deem "creepy" looking) to disguise themselves from the devlish spirits.They believed souls were set free from the dead on the night before the new year, as it was a day where two worlds, the living and the "otherside" aligned. Costumes, such as goblins, witches and elaborate masks were meant to disable spirits from implementing tricks on them.
The Celts also believed the alignment of the two worlds provided unique fortune abilities. Druid priests would conduct psychic readings to predict individuals' fortunes, and families would execute practices to not only predict their fortunes but to also protect themselves from any misfortunes. For example, families would leave food and drink outside their doors at night to appease any roaming spirits and to honor their ancestors. The majority of these divinatory traditions lost the superstitious appeal over the centuries and turned into more fun-like fortune-telling games.
By the 800s AD, Ireland encountered the rise of Christianity (among other Celtic nations). As a movement to popularize Christanity, Pope Boniface IV introduced a holiday known as All Saints Day, which originally occurred on May 13. In the 18th century, Pope Gregory II moved the date to November 1st. It is believed the Pope intended to “Christianize” the Samhain Festival to transform it into a sanctioned holiday. While some of the traditions of Samhain remained, the celebration evolved and became known as All-Hallows Eve.
Across to America
In colonial times, the majority of Celtic immigrants settled in the south. Having brought their Samhain traditions with them, they shaped the unofficial holiday to a more widely celebrated event. There are even some accounts of Halloween celebrations that mixed with the Native American harvest celebrations. As years passed, with different European ethnic groups in America, another new version of Halloween emerged. Festivities included fireworks, ghost stories and other games. Here are just a few of the many traditions practiced:
Colcannon: This is a traditional dish of boiled potatoes mashed with kale, onions or shallots, and cream. There are variations on the tradition. One was that parents wrapped coins in baking paper and hid them in the bowls for kids to find and keep. Another was a marriage divination. If an unmarried woman found the hidden charm in the bowls, she’d be blessed with a marriage proposal. The third was that unmarried women would fill their socks with colcannon and hang them on the front door with the belief that the first man to enter through the door would be their future husband.
The Ivy Leaf: Each member of the family would get a cup of water and leave a piece of ivy leaf in it over the night. If the leaf didn’t develop any deformities by morning, then the person would have good health for the upcoming year.
Barnbrack Cake: Each member of a family would get a slice of this fruit bread. If you get a rag (or pea) in the cake, it signifies upcoming trouble with finances. If you get a ring, it signifies marriage or continued happiness. If you get a coin, it signifies prosperity. There are variations on this tradition as well.
Apples: Apples were used in several traditions for predicting one’s future. Bobbing for apples was for the unmarried (there was also Snap Apple, a game for children, where apples were strung from a tree). The first person to take the bite of an apple in a pool of water was destined for marriage and good luck. If you peeled an apple in one long strip and chucked it over your left shoulder, the peel would expose an initial of the woman's future husband's name. Before midnight struck, women would sit in front of a mirror with a lit candle and an apple cut into nine pieces. Women would then turn their backs against the mirror, ask a question they wanted to know the answer to, eat eight of the slices, then throw the ninth slice over the left shoulder. Upon turning back towards the mirror, women would see a symbol or image hinting the answer. The variation of this is that women would sit in front of the mirror with two candles lit at the stroke of midnight to see a ghostly image appear in the mirror, signifying their potential husband's face.
Three Bowls: A woman (again, unmarried) would sit with three bowls placed in front of her. She would have to extend her left hand and choose a bowl. If she touched the bowl with clean water, she’d be destined to marry within the new year. If she touched the bowl with dirty water, she’d be destined to marry either an older man or a widower. If she touched the bowl that was empty, she’d remain unmarried for another year.
In the mid-1800s, close to two million Irish immigrants fled to America due to the potato famine. As they settled into their new lives, they too, continued to practice old traditions. But by this point, Halloween morphed into a more light-hearted and social oriented celebration losing some of the superstitious beliefs. Gatherings included fun games, festive décor, bonfires and seasonal food. People continued to wear costumes but would roam from house to house in local neighborhoods to ask for food or money (a tradition derived from the middle ages in Europe, a practice known as ‘guising’). This later evolved into “Trick-Or-Treating.”
By the 1920s, Halloween in America lost its religious aspect but still maintained the community aspect. Parades and town parties became common. For a couple decades, Halloween did turn into a time of vandalism and crime, mainly from the youth (the KKK also capitalized on the holiday), but by the 1950s, towns were able to redirect the holiday and bring it back to a more festive-oriented celebration, although this time around it was aimed towards the youth, due to the influx of children from the baby boom.
An old Irish myth told the story of a guy named Jack, who had a reputation for not only making deals with the Devil, but also tricking the Devil. After years of tricks and manipulations, Jack was able to convince the Devil not to claim his soul come the day he dies. When he did pass, Heaven denied him and the Devil condemned Jack to roam between the worlds in darkness with nothing but a piece of burning coal. It is said Jack found a turnip, carved it and placed the coal inside to walk around with for light. The Irish referred to the story as “Jack of the Lantern.” Both the Irish and Scottish began carving faces into turnips to place outside of their home or on a window sill to keep him and other wandering spirits away.
When they immigrated to America, they made Jack O’Lanterns with pumpkins (did you know pumpkins are a native fruit to America?).
What started as a celebration for the end of the summer and harvest, and even the dead, then turned into a religious holiday, has now developed into an event where kids (and adults, too) dress up to trick or treat and bring home copious amounts of candy. Despite the commercialism, some still practice modern versions of the ancient traditions and continue to honor their ancestors.
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"When the world is wrapped in slumber,
and the moon is sailing high,
if you peep between the curtains
you'll see witches riding by."