Origins of Common Halloween Traditions

Source: sxc.hu Photo: Parium
Source: sxc.hu Photo: Parium

Autumn through the holidays is my favorite time of year. I love everything about the months including the time period from September to New Year’s Day. And that includes Halloween. I am excited this year, since my son has discovered science fiction and has decided to be Darth Vader. He is also old enough to be showing interest in the “why” behind celebrations and holidays. This is encouraging to me, because since I was a child, I enjoyed learning about customs, cultures and traditions. So it is no surprise that I am interested in the origins of Halloween, and excited to share them with my son. It works out nicely, since I am also quite interested in Celtic traditions (my son’s name derives from Gaelic): Halloween is a holiday that retains some of the influence of the ancient Celts.

General origins of Halloween

The ancient Celts celebrated Samhain (there is no concrete evidence that “Samhain” was a Celtic god of death), which marked the end of summer, and the harvest. It also heralded the coming of winter. The Celts believed that during this time of year, the veil between our world and the spirit world was very thin. It was quite possible to see the spirit of deceased relative — or find that the relative’s spirit was inhabiting an animal for that one night (usually a black cat).

In order to provide offerings to deities in thanks for the harvest, Celts sometimes went door to door, collecting food, and sometimes wood for Samhain bonfires, from their neighbors. Some believe that these practices provide a basis for the modern practice of trick-or-treating.

The name “Halloween” came much later, after the introduction of Christianity. The Church, under the direction of Pope Boniface IV, made November 1 into All Saints’ Day, and the night before that day became All Hallows’ Eve. November 2 also acquired holy day status, in order to honor dead Christians who were not saints. The whole three days from October 31 through November 2 is known as Hallow Tide.

Costumes and jack 0’lanterns

The Celts even dressed up in costumes. Even though meeting the spirits of their dead friends and relatives was not a particularly scary thought, the thinness of the veil between the spirit world and the corporeal world meant that evil spirits could also cross over. In order to scare the spirits away, or trick them into thinking that the Celts were spirits themselves, they wore costumes on their way home from the bonfires. Families often took an ember from fire, carrying it in a holder carved with faces and signs, for use in lighting the home hearth.

Later, the idea of the jack o’lantern received an additional source — its name. The story from 18th century Ireland tells of an unsavory character named Jack. He even managed, at one point, to trick the devil, trapping him in a tree. When Jack finally died, Heaven wouldn’t admit him due to his sins. The devil wanted none of him in Hell, however, so Jack was resigned to wandering the earth forever. Even though he wouldn’t let him into Hell, the devil still took pity on Jack, and gave him a coal for light. Jack had a turnip, so he hollowed it out to make a lantern. Today, though, we carve pumpkins instead.

Celebrating Halloween

Halloween is especially popular in the U.S. and Canada these days. Only Christmas results in more decorations than Halloween. And Halloween candy is a $20 million industry. Many people celebrate by dressing up and going to parties (only Christmas and New Year’s include more holidays), and children dress up and go door to door asking for candy. There are also alternative activities suggested by some Christian congregations. These often include having Bible study instead of going to Halloween activities, or passing out tracts instead of candy. Some Christians and adherents to other religions simply refuse to celebrate or even acknowledge Halloween.

For those who are interested in celebrating Halloween, or sharing its origins with their children, there are a number of places to go where you can make various crafts or find games and activities for children. Here are some great family resources for Halloween:

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