A Brief History of Halloween

Halloween, PumpkinsIt’s that time again, to dress up, trick or treat, and carve pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns. What makes Halloween special is that it is essentially a North American phenomenon, and one that represents the best that the multiculturalism of Canada and the United States has to offer. Halloween gets its roots from an amalgam of the Pagan festival Samhain, and the Christian holidays of All Saint’s Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd).

The history of Halloween

Samhain was an ancient Pagan festival which celebrated the harvest and ushered in the darkening skies of the cold bleak winters. Winter was a time of death and decay, and given the extraordinary struggles winter brought during the medieval period, Pagans celebrated in hopes of offsetting the dark supernatural powers of the underworld that emerged as the winter equinox moved closer. The Romans, being Christian at the time, refuted Samhain as a devil worshipping ceremony; however, devil worship did not fit into the Pagan polytheistic belief system.

The Christian contribution to Halloween is just as strong as the Pagans’. All Hallow’s Eve or the eve of All Saint’s Day was used as a time to pray for those in Purgatory. It was believed that during this time the spirits were out wandering trying to find their way home to be with family. The families would often lay out clothes and baked food along with their intercessory prayers to help the dead move on. It was to help free souls that may have been locked in purgatory or to help relieve some homes thought to be haunted by dead relatives.

Throughout the Middle Ages to the early 16th century, All Hallow’s Eve was a time for celebration, drinking, eating, and games. The Catholic Church would, probably unwittingly, adopt the pagan idea of using bon fires to ward off malevolent spirits. It wasn’t until the Reformation that put an end to the All Hallow’s Eve. The Protestant movement saw the concept of Purgatory as misguided Catholic manipulation of original Christian Doctrine, and that intercessory prayers didn’t line up with their idea of predetermination. While the celebratory element was all but gone, the belief that supernatural powers were heightened during this time prevailed. In the British Isles it was believed that on All Hallow’s Eve ghosts, spirits, witches, and demons were rampant.

Halloween found its way to North America with the huge immigration of Irish and Scottish settlers. These settlers heavily outnumbered those of England by a ratio of 7:5. Here Halloween was celebrated as a way of rejoicing cultural heritage and typically within the family. During the late 19th century immigration of Scottish and Irish settlers increased. For Halloween they would engage in songs, dress up, and have contests. Halloween was essentially a working class festival but some of the Scottish and Irish elite would take part as well and provide concerts and balls. Halloween became an event for everyone.

As Halloween grew larger, and other ethnic groups took part, merchants saw potential in the marketing of Halloween as it grew into a cultural phenomenon. They would market food and costumes as part of a way to celebrate. Pumpkins started being advertised as a novelty in which you could carve faces and light them up with candles. This was taken from the Celtic tradition of shelling out turnips and lighting them with candles to acknowledge souls in Purgatory during the All Hallow’s Eve festival.

It wasn’t until the late 19th and the early 20th century when university students in North America celebrated Halloween on a large scale that it became an official calendar event. It was also a time of social inversion, where the lower class controlled the streets and revelry became rampant. The macabre was reintroduced in no small part to the aura of supernatural power. Scary costumes were part of a way for kids to go from shop to shop in exchange for candy, fruit, or nuts. Bats and black cats were popularized by gothic fiction of the 19th century by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe. Halloween started to take first hold on the public consciousness as it continues to do so today.

Many might not realize it, but people of North America hold special claim on what Halloween is today. While some of its traditions go far back to Pagan rituals and Christian holidays, Halloween has become far removed from what it once was. Whether it was the dire need to ward off spirits before the harsh winter as the ancient Pagans did, or pray for the souls of dead relatives, you can easily see there is sublimity in appreciating the macabre and supernatural nature of Halloween without questioning the vital importance it has on your life and soul. So, next time you walk through the seasonal department, carve a pumpkin, or watch The Nightmare Before Christmas for the 20th time, maybe take some time and reflect on what a rich history goes behind this simple, fun, little holiday. Happy Halloween!

~ Michelle Pardy

Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. New York: Oxford University P., 2002.
www.history.com . n.d. 20 October 2011.

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