In the lives of most people, it seems like their detailed understanding of history only goes as far back to when they were born. The celebration of Halloween is no different in that most do not understand why we celebrate it or even its origins. Let’s take a deeper dive into the history to help people appreciate this time of year.
We start with Samhain, the ancient Celtic (pronounced Keltic) celebration. These people lived in what is presently Ireland, United Kingdom and northern France. Samhain (pronounced Sah-win) is considered a sacred time marking the end of harvest and start of the coldest part of the year. It is also a time of honoring the dead and reflecting on the spiritual side of the New Year. [i] It dates as far back as 2000 years ago. It was celebrated on October 31, eve of November 1. It was known as the beginning of the Celtic Year, the beginning season of cold, death and darkness. [ii] It was believed that the presence of otherworldly spirits were more active during this time. The misconception that Samhain was devoted to the dead or ancestor worship cannot be substantiated!
As Christianity started to take root in Western Europe, the Catholic Church wanted to stop what they considered pagan religions. So, in 600 A.D. Pope Boniface IV designates November 1st as “All Saints Day”. Maybe this was an effort to fulfill the saying, “if you cannot beat them, join them”. He simply renamed it to something else. [iii] Two hundred years later, Pope Gregory III made a declaration that it would be permissible for Christians to dress up as saints and allowed young men to go door to door to collect food for the poor.
It took until the 16th century before Samhain and All Saints day became basically the same holiday. It became known as “All Hallows’ Day”, with the night before being “All Hallows evening” or more succinctly “Hallowe’en” Of course this was now considered a Catholic Church holiday, so the New England Puritans, in the 17th Century banned Halloween, Christmas and Easter.
So where did the idea of carving up a pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern come from? [iv] It is from a folklore myth about stingy Jack who made a deal with the Devil. The original were carved turnips, potatoes or beets. When the Irish and English settled into North America pumpkins were more plentiful and were more adaptable to being carved up into a face to scare Stingy Jack away (or any other evil spirits).
It was in the nineteenth century that the Catholics, along with the Episcopalian churches that officially sanctioned Halloween. Along with this came the idea “tricking” as a reason to be mischievous. It was in the late nineteenth century America was moving towards making this more of a community holiday, with neighbors getting together, and less about ghosts and goblins. It was geared more to be a seasonal festive day with costumes, and games and food. This set the stage for Halloween to be less of a religious holiday and more of a secular holiday.
The first half of the twentieth century started the commercialization of Halloween. In 1912, the Dennison Manufacturing Co started publishing books that were replete with information on party ideas, how to decorate for Halloween and different types of costumes. In 1918 the Spanish Flue Pandemic as it was called, created cancellation that year of this celebration.
However, in 1921, Anoka, Minnesota became the notary as the first American city to sanction the Holiday city wide. Within four years, New York City, Anaheim in California and then Los Angeles in California respectively sanctioned these as city wide Halloween celebrations.
So what is the economic impact? In America alone, Americans will spend close to $7 Billion on this holiday.[v] This is a staggering number for one night of tricking and treating. When you add this up with the other countries in the world celebrating this holiday, it is a high impact activity for merchants, candy and costume manufacturers. So this could mean, that whatever your religious affiliation is, it does not matter. What matters is participating by doing your part to help the economy, where we all benefit as a community.
Now, in the sub-title of this article, I promised you 5 things you did not know about Halloween. If you have read this far, you already have been tricked into learning about them. To summarize, they are:
- Celtic origins around Samhain observances on October 31
- That Samhain was not originally a worship of dead or ancestors
- The Catholics jumped into the fray by starting “All saints day” on November 1
- The Catholics tried to control it for a good millennium by telling their parishioners what they could or could not observe
- It was basically merged into one holiday in the 16th century
- It morphed into a community event
- Original Jack-O-Lanterns were turnips or potatoes, around the myth of Stingy Jack
- It was in the early 2oth century that American cities officially sanctioned it
- It is now big business for the economy
Well, that is more than five, but you can pick the ones you like. Go out and treat your neighbors by sharing this new found information.