Origins of Halloween: From Pagan ritual to party night

(Photo courtesy Family Fun Magazine/MCT)

(Photo courtesy Family Fun Magazine/MCT)


Humna Sharif
Staff Writer

Tracing the origins of Halloween back through the pages of history we arrive to the Festival of Samhain celebrated among the Celts of ancient Britain and Ireland. It started being observed over 2000 years ago. Nov. 1st was considered to be the end of the summer season; this was the time of return of herds from pastures and renewal of land tenures. It was also widely believed to be the time when the souls of the dead came back to visit their homes and families.

History Professor John Poling explained that people used to go around to each other’s houses and beg for what they called the soul cakes and that was, in a way, the origin of trick or treating. If they were indeed given a soul cake then the people would pray for the giver’s dead ancestors.
Over time as the belief grew, superstition also evolved; people started lighting fires on hilltops, and made lanterns out of turnips by carving demonic faces in them all to frighten away the evil spirits that might try to possess them.

“Another thing that got started at about the same time was guising, which is where the word disguise comes from, some people also called it mumming. They dressed up in costumes in the face of the dead. So there are reasons to why we do things that we do on Halloween. It actually goes pretty far back,” Poling said.

By seventh century CE, Pope Boniface IV had established the holiday of All Saints Day. Originally celebrated on May 13, it gradually shifted to November 1, as the Pagan society in Europe slowly transitioned into a Christian one. Thus, the Festival of Samhain, a Pagan celebration, turned into a day to commemorate the lives of Christian Saints, the two days had completely merged by the end of the middle ages. The tradition of wearing disguises and lighting lamps and fires, however, prevailed.

Halloween as we know it really came about when the day before All Saints day came to be considered as a holy or hallowed eve, thus the name Halloween. The Saints day was still celebrated but people began to have certain celebrations the night before.
Halloween is celebrated every year on October 31 and is largely seen as a secular celebration amongst the people of United States and amongst most countries of Europe as well. Halloween is a time when everyone gets a chance to dress up in whatever manner pleases them. In America it started to gain prominence in the mid-19th century when large number of immigrants came from Europe, including people from Ireland as well. These immigrants brought with them their Halloween costumes and the local population started adopting the new customs. By the mid-20th century Halloween had become a widely celebrated holiday.

“We didn’t have costumes or trick or treating or anything in the early 1900. And even then I would say it wasn’t probably all this widespread until after World War II,” Poling said. In about the 1950s and 60s it really got popular with children and teenagers.

These days Halloween doesn’t hold much religious significance. It’s mainly seen now as a night of dressing up and having fun. It’s a largely commercialized holiday with costume shops that spring up a few months prior to the holiday and people buying all sorts of costumes and attires.

“We Americans like doing everything big and nothing small,” Poling said. “So Halloween, like Saint Patrick’s Day or Saint Valentine’s Day, has become so commercialized that most of us don’t know why it was celebrated originally. The commercialization, I think, really started as more people became aware of it. They started to go out for buying costumes and candy. The response by retailers was, of course, to manufacture a grander variety of costumes and candy, which really got the masses interested. In the last few decades people have started decorating their homes for Halloween like they do for Christmas and eventually we lost touch with the origins of Halloween.”

Halloween parties often include games such as bobbing for apples, perhaps derived from the Roman celebration of Pomona, Trick or Treating, and carving pumpkins for making Jack O’ lanterns. Along with skeletons and black cats, the holiday has also incorporated scary beings such as ghosts, witches, goblins and vampires into the celebration.

Celeste Kim is a student at Parkland College, as well as the University of Illinois, who has an ethnic background of South Korea.

When asked about her views on Halloween she commented,

“My parents at first were not very supportive of the whole idea of me dressing up and going out for Halloween, but they’ve come around now. It’s the one night of the year when it’s completely acceptable to dress up as something crazy. I have been planning my costume for months in advance. For me, Halloween is just about having fun. I don’t really think about the historical or religious aspect of it. I like to go trick or treating and then I go to a couple different parties as well.”
Wherever the origins of Halloween may trace back to, the fact remains that it is one of the most popular celebrations in North America, one that children and adults alike celebrate with fervor and enthusiasm.