VOICES: The origins of Halloween

Category:  Opinions
Sunday, October 31st, 2021 at 4:50 PM
VOICES: The origins of Halloween  by Alexander Beatty
Photo: Pexels.com

When many of us think of Halloween, we imagine crisp leaves, loud parties, flamboyant costumes, and sweet candy. But Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, has a much darker and deeper history than the fun we have today.  

 The history dates back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain around 2000 years ago in what would be around Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France according to history.com. At this time, the new year began on Nov. 1 marking the end of harvest and the start of a cold winter. It was believed that boundaries between the world of the living and dead would be the most blurred. Oct. 31 marks the day the dead enter the world of the living, allowing the ghosts to rise up. 

 This might sound scary nowadays, but then, it was a sign of good fortune. Residents would sacrifice crops or animals to the bonfire while dancing around in costumes (often made of animal skins/heads). This was to ensure better fortune in the new year and be able to survive the harsh cold winter.After the celebration, the bonfire was used to light fires in residents homes to provide heat for winter. 

Romans took over Celtic territory. The Romans celebrated Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol, the apple, provided the start of the tradition we now know as bobbing for apples. Moving on a few hundred years, Pope Boniface IV declared All Saints Day in Rome to celebrate martyrs and aunts. Falling on Nov. 2, All Souls' Day honors Celtic traditions. 

 Belief systems held by the colonies stalled the acceptance of Halloween in America. Early celebrations included storytelling, fortunetelling, singing and dancing. 

 It was believed placing food outside homes kept ghosts away. As a safe guard, those who did need to travel outside the home wore masks to trick the ghosts into accepting the living. These traditions now influence modern day trick or treating. 

 The beloved trick-or-treating and decorating houses in haunting ways ties back to All Souls’ Day parades in England. According to history.com, “During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives.”  

History.com provides more ties between the past and our present Halloween traditions. A black cat signifies bad luck as it is a witch shapeshifting. Stepping on a crack, breaking a mirror or spilling salt also cause bad luck as did walking under a ladder for Egyptians who felt the triangle to be a sacred shape. 

To ward off spirts, Celtic people carved pumpkins. These carved pumpkins could also represent war trophies. In an interview with National Geographics Balane Bachelor, Nathan Mannion, senior curator for the EPIC Irish Immigration Museum said, "it's quite macabre, but it may have symbolized the severed heads of your enemies." To ward off spirits, on Oct. 31 people carve scary faces in root vegetables and placed a flame inside. This less expensive alternative to metal lanterns provides light through the holes that are carved. 

But how did it get the name jack-o-lantern? According to National Geographic, thisstems from an 18th-century Irish folktale of Stingy Jack — a man who loved booze and mischief. It said he even tricked the devil twice, which banished him from heaven and hell when he died. He was given a turnip lantern to guide his way as he wandered between the two for all of eternity.  

Next time you carve a pumpkin, dress up in costume, or trick or treat, take a moment to appreciate these traditions. Even better, share the history surrounding them to preserve the tradition.

Alexander Beatty, Staff Writer | @EdinboroNow

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