History of Halloween: The Transformation

As far as history can tell, what we have come to celebrate as Halloween began over 2000 year ago among the Celtics in the British Isles (Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France).

Enter the Romans

By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.

The Romans celebrated Feralia, a festival honoring the dead in October, and on November 1, they honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.

The Impact of Christianity on Halloween

By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. To separate their converts from their pre-Christian beliefs, the church developed a new spin on the nature spirit believed in by the Celts and Romans. They were recast as demons, devils and witches. To distance themselves from such negative images, new Christians abandoned the old festivals and began to celebrate the new holy days the church created. These included All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2. The night before these holy days became known as All Hallows’ Eve, All Hallow e’en and eventually Halloween.

Onward to the United States

Halloween was not celebrated in the United States until the mid-19th century when a potato famine drove over a million starving Irish and their folklore across the Atlantic and into America’s port cities. An ocean from home and immersed into a cultural melting pot, their traditions began to change. The huge bonfires shrank to lanterns carved from gourds – the first jack-o’-lanterns. The disguises became the sinister costumes of modern day Halloween.

While the origins of trick or treating are unclear, it is believed that they stemmed from a custom called “souling,” where the poor went from home to home and prayed for the souls of each family’s dead in exchange for small cakes to eat.

By the early part of the 20th century, Halloween gained a foothold as an American tradition. Mass-produced Halloween costumes became commonplace. To appeal to children rather than scare them, ghosts were depicted as friendly and jack-o’-lanterns had smiling faces.

Halloween’s appeal delights children and adults alike. It’s a day to step into costume, gorge on sweets, throw ghoulish parties and scare ourselves and anyone else around silly. The holiday has been transformed into a day when deranged humans (courtesy of Hollywood), rather than spirits, roam the streets with mischievous intent.

Now a multi-billion dollar industry, a few people might nostalgically note that, as a society, we’ve lost touch with the original meaning of Halloween. The earliest celebrations of Halloween were premised on the firmly held belief that the dead came back to earth one night a year to potentially snatch and possess the bodies of the living.

Should you be concerned? Well, if I were you, instead of falling back to sleep when things go bump on Halloween night, be afraid, be very afraid. After all, Halloween just isn’t Halloween without a bit of mischief going around!

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