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  • Writer's pictureJohn R. Mayhew

An American Tradition - Halloween

Today's Halloween originated over 2,000 years ago by the Celtic people living in the area that is now known as the United Kingdom, Ireland, and northwestern France. They celebrated an ancient pagan festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which means "summers end" marking the end of the growing season and harvest and the beginning of the new year on November 1.

November 1 was the beginning of the dark, cold winter when food grew scarce and plants all died. It was also a time associated with human death. The Celtic people believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.

October 31 became a night when the spirits of those who had died during that year gathered. These spirits returned to their homes and needed the help of their families to cross over to the land of the dead. The relatives would hollow out turnips and gourds and use them to carry the spirits to the proper location of the cross over. That night also brought out evil spirits, witches and goblins. The relatives would paint a scary face on the gourds, paint their faces, and put on wild costumes to chase away the evil spirits.

Fairies also roamed the night of October 31. Fairies weren't good or evil. They would disguise themselves as beggars and go door to door asking for handouts. Those who gave them food were rewarded and those who slammed the door were punished.

The people also gathered to light a large bonfire in the center of town. They would wear their costumes and burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic gods. When the Samhaim celebration was over, they would relight their fireplaces, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

By 43 AD, the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. Eventually, as the Roman and Celtic cultures began to merge, the Catholic Church grew in power.

The Pope desperately wanted to eliminate the pagan Samhaim ceremonies and decided to replace the old festival with a new festival. The church created All Saints' Day, a holy day to honor all the saints.

To celebrate All Saints' Day, the young men would go door to door begging for food for the poor people of the town. The townspeople would dress up in costumes to represent a saint. They now dressed up to honor the saints, instead of dressing up to chase away evil spirits.

By the 1500's Samhaim and All Saints' Day were blurred into one holiday. November 1 became All Saints' Day also called All Hallows'. Hallow means saint, or one who is holy. The evening before All Hallows' Eve, or as it came to be abbreviated, All Hallow e'en, eventually became known as Halloween.

In the late 1800's America was flooded with new immigrants and new customs. The Americans began to take on the Halloween celebration and began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today's "trick-or-treat". The immigrants started using pumpkins, instead of turnips and gourds and created Jack O'Lanterns. Bonfires remained popular but not for sacrifices and relighting fireplaces. By the 1920's and 1930's, Halloween had become a community centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties.

Halloween has become an American tradition and has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country's second largest commercial holiday.



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