A Brief History of Halloween by Christopher Vegliante

The Celtic people, who lived more than 2000 years ago, feared the evening of October 31 more than any other day of the year. It was the eve of their festival of Samhain. Samhain was a joyful harvest festival that marked the death of the old year and the beginning of a new one. The day itself was a time for paying homage to the sun god Baal who had provided the people with the ripened grain for use in the upcoming winter. Come evening evil spirits were everywhere. Charms and spells were said to have more power on the eve of Samhain. The Celtic priests, Druids, to appease the Lord of the Dead, performed several rituals.

At around this time, Christianity was born, and grew stronger until in the 4th century after Christ, the Roman Emperor Constantine declared it unlawful. Within the Roman Empire, the Christian Fathers tried hardest to stamp out all things pagan, which is what they named the old religions. However, the Celts held firmly to their Druid customs. So, the Christian Church gave them new meanings and names and told the people that the fire rites they had previously held for the Lord of the Dead on October 31 would now protect them from the Devil, the enemy of God.

In the 7th century the Church celebrated ALL SAINTS DAY in May, but by the 9th century the date had been changed to November 1. The original festival for the pagan Lord of the Dead became a festival of Christian dead. People went on expecting the arrival of ghosts on October 31st. Another name for ALL SAINTS DAY is ALL HALLOW’S EVEN, which was later shortened to HALLOWEEN. In the 10th century the Church named November 1 ALL SAINTS DAY in memory of all dead souls. Halloween, ALL SAINTS DAY and ALL SOULS DAY come so close together and are so similar that in some countries they tend to merge together.

The Witch

The witch is a central symbol of HALLOWEEN. The name comes from the Saxon wica, meaning, “wise one”. In contemporary society we associate this term with the Wicca movement. When setting out for a Sabbath, witches rubbed a sacred ointment onto their skin. This gave them a feeling of flying (naked skin with wind blowing presumably), and if they had fasted they felt even giddier. Some witches rode on horseback, but poor witches went on foot and carried a broom or a pole to aid in vaulting over streams. In England when new witches were initiated they were often blindfolded, smeared with flying ointment and placed on a broomstick. The ointment would confuse the mind, speed up the pulse and numb the feet. One can only imagine or speculate as to what the active ingredient must have been in this mixture. When they were told “You are flying over land and see”, the witch took their word for it.

The Jack-O-Lantern

An Irish myth tells of a man named STINGY JACK who one day invited the Devil to have a drink. He convinced the Devil to change into a sixpence in order to pay for a drink, but instead of paying for the drink he pocketed the sixpence beside a silver cross which prevented the Devil from changing back. Jack made a deal with the Devil before letting him free. For one year the Devil could not harass Jack. Next Halloween the Devil met up with Jack again, and Jack made another deal with him to be left alone. Jack died within the year and was turned away from the Gates of Heaven. He went to the Gates of Hell and the Devil told him to go away. The Devil tossed Jack a glowing coal and jack put it inside a turnip he was eating and ever since, with this Jack-O-Lantern, Jack has been roaming the face of this earth. Another tale tells of Scottish children hollowing out and carving large turnips and putting candles in them. Irish children accordingly used turnips or potatoes. In parts of England they used beets. When the Scottish and the Irish came to the US they found pumpkins, which of course makes a perfect Jack –O-Lantern.

Costumes and Masks

From earliest times people wore masks when drought or other disasters struck. They believed that the hideous masks would frighten off the demons that had brought their misfortune upon them. Even after the festival of Samhain had merged with Halloween, Europeans felt uneasy at this time of the year. Food was stored in preparation for the winter and the house was snug and warm. The cold, envious demons were outside and people who went out after dark often wore masks to keep from being recognized. Until very recently children would dress up as ghosts and goblins to scare the neighbors but there was no Trick or Treating. Around 1950 or so people began to offer treats to their costumed visitors. In parts of England the poor once went to houses singing and begging for “soul cakes” or money. Spanish people put cakes and nuts on graves to bribe the evil spirits.

The Black Cat

Aversion to black cats has religious origins as well. During the middle- ages it was held that witches could turn themselves into many different types of animals and things. The black cat seemed a natural target for this belief and so when one was seen it was concluded that it must be a witch in disguise.

The Number 13

At the Last Supper there were 13 people-one was Judas – A TRAITOR.

Bobbing for Apples

After the Romans conquered Britain they added to Halloween features of the Roman harvest on November 1, in honor of the goddess of the fruit trees, Pomona-Traces of the festival survive in modern Halloween in the US and Britain in playing games involving fruit.

Trick or Treat

Thought to have come from a European custom called “souling”. Beggars would go from village to village begging for “soul cakes” made out of square pieces of bread. The more they received the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf and for the spiritual betterment of the dead relatives of those who fed them. At the time it was believed that the dead remained in Limbo for a time after death and that prayer, even by strangers, could guarantee a soul’s passage to heaven. An Interesting Comment from A British Citizen

“Many people believe Halloween is now a “modern” celebration, that witches don’t exist and that the old “witchcraft” traditions are just not carried out anymore. In South England, for example, police find strange arrangements of animal bones and fire ashes in the woods and some churchyards every November 1 in the morning. The light from the fires can be seen October 31 if you stand at the edge of the forest – it happens every year. Halloween is a very real pagan festival to many people.

Final Note

In the US, Halloween has become the most popular holiday of the year, as measured by the number of people that participate in holiday festivities. Unfortunately, most of us do not fully understand what we are celebrating and commemorating. If more of us realized what we are re-enacting I wonder how many of us would continue to participate.

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