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A Short History of Halloween

A Short History of Halloween

A wicker man, described by Julius Caesar in Commentaries on the Gallic War

Tracing Halloween’s origins is tricky; the holiday is a syncretic blend of competing cultural and religious traditions. Its earliest roots are found in the Celtic Samhain festival, celebrating the end of the harvest season and the lighter half of the year. This celebration was attended with offerings of food and animal sacrifices—the question of human sacrifice among the Druid priest class remains controversial, with most mentions of the practice coming from propagandizing Roman sources. The existence of the wicker man, described by Julius Caesar as a means of ritual killing, is generally doubtful.

What we call Halloween is the first day of Allhallowtide, preceding All Saints’ Day and All Soul’s Day in the Western Christian Church. The belief that the spirits of the dead returned to Earth just before All Soul’s Day intermixed with the Celtic influence of Samhain as a liminal zone when the barriers between worlds were weakened. Costume-wearing can be traced to behaviors like the Shetland Isles' gruliks who wore decorative animal skins and would travel from home to home asking for gifts. This intermingled with Christian observances like souling, with the faithful going from door to door to ask for prayers for the departed and receiving soul cakes.

A traditional jack-o'-lantern in the Museum of Country Life, Ireland (source: Rannṗáirtí Anaiṫnid)

Halloween was repressed during the Reformation, with the Protestant Church objecting to the Catholic idea of Purgatory that Allhallowtide revolved around. The popular traditions of bonfires and guising persisted without clerical influence, contributing to the holiday’s secularization. In turn, English Protestants adopted Guy Fawkes Day as an alternate night of revelry, celebrating the failure of the 1605 Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. Guy Fawkes Day landing on November 5 meant there was much overlap and borrowing from Halloween, but the holiday continued to survive, particularly in Scotland and Ireland.

It was Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 19th century who brought Halloween to the United States where the holiday, now more a popular night of celebration than a religious observance, was gradually absorbed into the larger culture. With the United States’ rise as a cultural superpower in the 20th century, Halloween has come to be celebrated around the world, far beyond its roots as a Celtic harvest festival. Ironically, its suppression during the Reformation seems to have guaranteed Halloween immortality, the holiday having been celebrated in one form or another for millennia, from the Samhain bonfires of prehistory to the trick-or-treaters of today.

Read more!

Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2003. Print.

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