Happy Halloween!
October 31, 2006

 Every Halloween we all get dressed-up, act like fools and steal candy from neighborhood kids when they come to the door. But does everyone know the history behind the holiday?

 

 The origin of Halloween dates back 2,000 years to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).  While most dictionaries of Celtic Languages don’t mention any "Samhain" deity, McBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language says that "samhuinn" (the Scots Gaelic spelling) means "Hallow-tide" (or ‘sacred time’), and that it probably came from roots meaning "summer’s end."

 

The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1.  This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death.  They believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred.  On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.  In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids (Celtic priests) to make predictions about the future.  For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

 

To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires around which the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.  During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.  When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

 

 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 first was "Feralia", a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead.  The second was a day to honor 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.

 

By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands.  In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints’ Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs.  It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday.  The celebration was also called "All-hallows" or "All-hallowmas" (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called "All-hallows Eve" and, eventually, "Halloween".  Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church would make November 2 "All Souls’ Day", a day to honor the dead.  It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils.  Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints’, All Saints’, and All Souls’, were called "Hallowmas".

 

The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called "souling".  On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for "soul cakes" made out of square pieces of bread with currants.  The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors.  At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul’s passage to heaven.

As for the Jack O’ Lantern, the legend goes back hundreds of years in Irish History.  As the story goes, Stingy Jack was a miserable, old drunk who liked to play tricks on everyone: family, friends, his mother and even the Devil himself.  One day, he tricked theDevil into climbing up an apple tree. Once the Devil climbed up the apple tree, Stingy Jack hurriedly placed crosses around the trunk of the tree. The Devil was then unable to get down the tree. Stingy Jack made the Devil promise him not to take his soul when he died. Once the devil promised not to take his soul, Stingy Jack removed the crosses and let the Devil down.

Many years later, when Jack finally died, he went to the pearly gates of Heaven and was told by Saint Peter that he was too mean and too cruel and had led a miserable and worthless life on earth.  He was not allowed to enter heaven.  He then went down to Hell and the Devil.  The Devil kept his promise and would not allow him to enter Hell.  Now Jack was scared and had nowhere to go but to wander about forever in the darkness between heaven and hell.

He asked the Devil how he could leave as there was no light.  The Devil tossed him an ember from the flames of Hell to help him light his way.  Jack placed the ember in a hollowed out Turnip, one of his favorite foods which he always carried around with him whenever he could steal one.  For that day onward, Stingy Jack roamed the earth without a resting place, lighting his way as he went with his "Jack O’Lantern".

On All Hallow’s Eve, the Irish hollowed out Turnips, rutabagas, gourds, potatoes and beets.  They placed a light in them to ward off evil spirits and keep Stingy Jack away.  These were the original Jack O’ Lanterns.  In the 1800’s a couple of waves of Irish immigrants came to America.  The Irish immigrants quickly discovered that Pumpkins were bigger and easier to carve out.  So they used pumpkins for Jack O’ Lanterns.

So, although some cults and Satanists may have adopted Halloween as their favorite "holiday," the day itself did not grow out of evil practices.  It grew out of the rituals of Celts celebrating a new year, and out of Medieval prayer rituals of Europeans.  And today, even many churches have Halloween parties or pumpkin carving events for the kids.  After all, the day itself is only as evil as one cares to make it.

 

And speaking of evil, below is my costume – the lovable Kevin Federline.

 

 

 

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Ryan "TheSuperfly" Prast
Current designer, future artist, eternal manchild, Ryan "The Superfly" Prast uses his toynerd acumen to delve deep into the profound nuances of life. With a penchant for tiny plastic men and nostalgia of times past, he also enjoys panelology, obscure cultural references, tomfoolery and/or shenanigans, conspiracy theories, and watching his Cubs flush another season down the toilet. And he always keeps his fork when there’s pie.
Read other articles by Ryan "TheSuperfly" Prast.

 

 

 

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