Thursday, September 30, 2010

A History of Halloween

Ghost stories and goblins, costumes and candy, trick or treat. This is what Halloween means to the millions of Americans who celebrate it every October 31.

But this holiday -- and more generally this season -- stretches back thousands of years, and is steeped in ancient traditions and fierce religious battles. Halloween dates back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) over 2,000 years ago.

Celtic farmers, who lived in what is now present-day Ireland, United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated four major holidays a year, based on the seasons.

November 1 was their new year because it marked the dying summer, the preparation for harvest and the beginning of the harsh winter -- all of which were associated with death.
On October 31, the night before the new year, the Celts celebrated Samhain because they believed the ghosts of the dead came back to Earth.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had expanded and conquered much of the Celtic territories. The Romans would continue to rule over the region for the next 400 years. Eventually, Roman colonies brought over their own harvest festival traditions: Feralia, a day in late October to commemorate the passing of the dead, followed by a day of tribute to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. These traditions were combined with the Celtic celebration, Samhain.

Christianity was building momentum by the 600s, and the church focused much of its efforts on stamping out pagan holidays. In 601 A.D., Pope Gregory I sent missionaries out all over Europe in hopes of gaining converts. With its emphasis on dead spirits and the supernatural, Samhain was declared pagan, and several followers were branded as witches.

By the 8th century, Pope Gregory III declared November 1 as "All Saints Day," a day to honor all saints and martyrs, which had been previously celebrated in the spring. It's believed this was another attempt at a church-sanctioned holiday to overrule pagan festivals.

All Saints Day is also known as "All Hallows Day," because the Middle English phrase for All Saints Day is "Alholowmesse." All Hallows Eve, the night before All Hallows Day, eventually became "Hallow Evening" and later, our present day "Halloween."

By 1000 A.D., the church was still not satisfied that the old beliefs of Samhain had died out. Recognizing that a day to honor the dead resonated with many people and cultures, the church tried again to replace these ancient traditions with a Christian day of feast. This day was declared on November 2, "All Souls Day," a day for the living to pray for the souls of the dead. The English poor would use this occasion to go door-to-door, promising to pray for the deceased loved ones in the household in exchange for cakes, drinks or money.

As the centuries rolled on, people began dressing up as fairies or demons and performing tricks when going from house to house. Although never confirmed, it's possible this is where our modern phrase "Trick or Treat" originates.

In the 1600s, when the Catholic church was more powerful than the kings of Europe, groups of Puritans fled England for America to escape religious persecution. With a firm belief in their Christian faith, most of the Puritans left the All Hallows traditions behind. However, they did continue to hold public harvest celebration events at the end of the growing season and tell ghost stories.

It would take two more centuries and a ferocious crop disease for Halloween to gain a widespread tradition in America. By the mid-19th century, America was flooded with European immigrants. Many were millions of Irish fleeing their homeland after the potato famine of 1846. These immigrants brought the traditions of Halloween with them.

The roaring bonfires of their ancestors became carved-out gourds sporting candles -- our modern day Jack o'Lanterns. And going from house to house in a costume became a popular way to celebrate harvest festival time.

By the late 1800s, Halloween slowly became a community and neighborhood- gathering holiday, rather than one focused on ghost stories and witchcraft. By the 1920s and '30s, Halloween was a widely adopted secular holiday, complete with town parades and neighborhood parties.

The baby boom of the 1950s made the holiday more child-centered, and games like "bobbing for apples" and trick-or-treating were more common. Neighborhood parties were moved from town civic centers to the classrooms and homes so more children could participate.

By 1986, Halloween was the third largest "party day" of the year, just after New Year's Eve and Super Bowl Sunday. While millions of people celebrate Halloween without knowing its origins and myths, the history and facts of Halloween make the holiday more fascinating.

(this information was taken in part from Discovery. com--here)

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