Over 2000 years old, this holiday is much more than dressing up and watching horror movies all night. It emerged and developed through centuries under the influence of a truly impressive mix of cultural, religious and traditional factors. It may be said to be at the crossroads of paganism and Christianity. How come the pagan holiday became associated with pumpkins and saw the greatest sales of chocolates around the year (except for Christmas)? Let’s go back to how it all began.
Halloween is rooted in Celtic traditions and can be traced back to Samhain. According to the Celts who lived in Ireland, the UK and Northern France, the year was divided into two parts – winter and summer – with October 31(the festival of Samhain) as the end of the summer season, harvest time and basically the light and happy time of the year. Centuries ago life was in many respects different from what we have today, and winter was associated with darkness, danger and death. Celts believed that the veil between the world of the dead and the one of the living was the thinnest on that day, so ghosts were thought to be walking the Earth, and to scare them away people wore animal skins (later homemade costumes and masks), put off the fire in their houses and also left treats for evil spirits outside. After the Romans came some of their religious traditions were incorporated into the celebrations. Yet why do we still celebrate it?
Aiming at converting the pagans, the Catholic Church established the feast of Hallowmas honoring all the saints on November 1, which made October 31 the eve before the Christian holiday – All Hallows’ Eve, its name merged over the years making Halloween. The Irish brought their traditions to the USA in the first half of the XIXth century, and a mass commercialization began in the 1920s. Today there’s no lack of sophisticated commercial costumes and Halloween cards for every taste and budget. Ever since the tradition was taken on by a number of countries and the day is widely celebrated far beyond the places of its origin.
One of the core elements of the celebration is treat-of-tricking when children dress up and walk from door to door singing and asking for sweets screaming ‘treat or trick!’ To bribe the little troublemakers, the neighbors prepare treats – candies and chocolates – in advance. Initially in England in the early XIXth century the poor went ‘souling’ – singing songs, offering prays for the dead and asking for food, drink and money. The soul-cakes with crosses on top were the most popular one. Souling gave way to ‘guising’ with not just singing songs but giving real performances and reciting poetry.
Pumpkin is indispensable part of the holiday as well, and it’s not that simple about it either. Did you know that turnip was originally used for making Jack-o'-lanterns in Ireland? The carved pumpkin as a decoration for home and street was introduced in the USA much later.
Rich in history and spread all over the world, Halloween celebrations are great fun and an opportunity to have a good time with friends and family. It makes several days or even weeks full of excitement and thinking over the costume and activities for the day. Yet now you know that there’s much more behind it.
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