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Published on Oct 31, 2013 in Europe, Featured Articles, News

The Origin of Halloween

Halloween had its origins in Europe. The celebration, and even the name itself, have evolved over time. The word “Halloween” is actually derived from the Scottish term All Hallows Eve, which is the evening before All Hallows Day, or All Saints Day in the Christian religion. Hallowed, in Old English, means holy or sanctified. In Scots, the word eve eventually contracted to een. And, over time, All Hallows Eve came to be called Halloween. All Hallows Eve falls on October 31st, the day before All Saints day. The Church had a tradition during this time where worshippers would, the evening prior to All Saints Day, hold a vigil where they would fast and pray.

In early Christianity, All Saints Day was celebrated on May 13th. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome, which was formerly a pagan temple. He dedicated the Pantheon to Saint Mary and the Martyrs and set May 13th as the yearly date for this celebration. This day of remembrance eventually came to be called All Saints Day. Later, Pope Gregory II dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to all the saints. He then set a universal date for this celebration within the Catholic Church, known as All Saints Day, on November 1st. The Orthodox Church continues to celebrate All Saints Day, however, on the first Sunday after Passover, which is close to May 13th.

During Medieval times, the practices associated with Halloween involved the lighting of bonfires to symbolize the plight of souls lost in purgatory. People would walk door-to-door offering prayers and songs for the dead in exchange for food. Later, the Christmas tradition of mumming, or parading in costumes, and play-acting, was added to this practice of door-to-door walking.

Halloween, in addition to its Christian origin, also contains elements of the festival of Samhain, a Celtic festival celebrated at the end of the harvest season, on October 31st. The Gaelic culture believed that the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped, and that someone who was deceased could come back to life and cause havoc. People at this time also believed in ghosts, witches, black cats, fairies, demons, and other forms of malevolence. Masks and costumes were worn to either mimic, or appease the evil spirits. Bats came to be associated with Halloween from the bonfires which attracted insects. The insects attracted bats.

Trick-or-treating evolved over time, from door-to-door walking and offering prayers in exchange for food, or souling, to include guising, or disguising oneself in a costume. In 1895 Scotland, for example, masqueraders in disguise would carry scooped out turnips and visit homes, being rewarded with cakes and fruit. This practice remained popular in Ireland and Scotland, and then spread to Italy and other European countries.

The first reference to Halloween in the US was in 1911, where Irish, English, and Scottish immigrants were thought to have brought these practices with them. In addition, trick-or-treating in the US, pre-1940, was mostly concentrated in the western US and Canada. Eventually the customs and practices associated with Halloween spread eastward.

Alan Refkin

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