Halloween's Haunted History
The Origins of Halloween's Honored Traditions
You see it everywhere. The neighbors are putting out that giant inflatable witch on a broomstick. There are copious amounts of candy flooding the supermarket aisles. Yet, there lies within your mind the single most terrifying thing of all: what you are going to wear this month? Every year, these traditions soak into our lives in a grand display of dark wonder, but do we ever stop to think about why? Where do these traditions come from? How did this holiday ripen to be the second most lucrative holiday of the year?
The truth lies deep within the ancient roots of agricultural humanity. Over 2000 years ago in the current British Isles, there lived a people known as the Celts (khelts). The Celts were a pastoral people whose livelihood depended on the seasons changing. This transition of summer to fall signaled the end of harvest and the beginning of the hard times of winter to come. This changing known as Samhain (sow-wen) is an age-old pagan festival that considered “The Veil” between the living and the dead was thinnest around this time. They noted that spirits of all kinds could walk the earth that night, not just the spirits of the dearly departed: fairies, demons, and other such creatures could enter as well. The Druid priests and the tribesmen would wear animal furs to disguise from these entities as well as leaving food and other offerings to ward off mischievous spirits.
But before long, Christianity started to rise throughout the Roman Empire. With Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 CE, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and its holy days would fill the calendar. Many bishops that came after this official status would notice the still pagan ways of their eastern neighbors and would try to change their ways. It wasn’t until Pope Gregory III in 731 CE advised that instead of “cutting down the worshiped tree, consecrate the tree to Christ”. Pope Gregory III instituted then All Saints Day, commemorating the martyrs and saints, to be held in October instead of its then position in May. The name then changed from “Saints” to “Hallows”, thus reading as All Hallows Day. The day before, All Hallows Evening, morphed further like this: All Hallows Evening à All Hallows Even à All Hallows e’en à Halloween. Pope Gregory III added on another day in hopes of converting those to Christianity with All Souls Day (for us in San Antonio, Día de los Muertos could be labeled as an approximation).
The holy days continued like this for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the immigration of the Irish, English, and Dutch to the US in the mid 1800s that Halloween experienced a kind of revival. The immigrants brought over their customs of Halloween, including the hollowing of various squash for “Jack O’Lanterns”, masquerades, and “a-souling” – otherwise known as a precursor to trick-or-treating. However, with this import, impish American children started using this holiday as an excuse for terrible pranks, having Halloween take a darker turn despite its already dark roots. For a while, children of all ages and backgrounds took part in random acts all across the country during this night, ranging from the harmless (e.g. putting gardening tools on someone’s roof) to the outright destructive (e.g. setting fire to buildings). However, through community partnership and city government involvement, they turned Halloween into a holiday rather for parties and entertainment than desecration. Here is when other commercial companies started cashing in on this holiday. With house wives across the nation reading on ways to entertain children and keep them out of the clutches of destruction and vandalism, people became more and more creative about their celebrations. After World War II, Halloween took its bat wings and began to fly as a national cultural holiday.
After the 1950s, the holiday grew into what it is today, and with every passing year becoming more extravagant. We see advertisements for haunted houses, pumpkin patches, and various finery to don on this one night where anyone could become anyone. Halloween has since grown from its mysterious roots, but the haunting memories of the past still remain. We can wear our best vestiges, but does it really hide the one darkness within us all? Whatever you do, beware of the shadow behind you.
Santino, J. (2015, May 15). Halloween: The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows. https://www.loc.gov/folklife/halloween.html
Unknown. (2016). Halloween History. http://halloweenhistory.org/history-of-halloween/
It’s Okaay. (2015, November 5). History Channel’s The Real History of Halloween. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0YJR4R2ZsU