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The History of Halloween
By Sarah Lane
Oct 17, 2008, 22:13 PST

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History of Halloween

The Word on Hallows Eve

The word Halloween comes from the phrase ‘All Hallows Eve.’ It is the evening before the Catholic Church holiday on November 1st known as, All Hallows Day, All Saint’s Day, All Souls Day, or All Hallowmas Day. In Old English, Hallow means sanctify. In the past on November 1st, Catholics honored all saints while Romans prayed for the dead and honored saints. Halloween, the night before this, has many different customs and origins attached to its history.

Perhaps the oldest recordings of a celebration on Halloween are that of a druidic fire festival called Samhain. This was celebrated by the Celts (people who now live in Great Britain and Northern France), in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It meant the closing of a harvest and the beginning of winter. After the Romans conquered most of that territory, they combined two of their own festivals with the traditional Celtic ritual of Samhain. The first Roman festival was called Feralia. This was a day in late October set aside to commemorate the passing of the dead. The second Roman festival was to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of the harvest or fruit and trees. Her symbol was the apple, which could be the reason we bob for apples on Halloween.

Trick or Treat for Prayers?

As with the history of Halloween, there are many different ways the act of trick or treating came about. One is from the 19th century custom called souling. This means Christians would walk from town to town on Halloween night, begging for soul cakes. The soul cakes were actually square pieces of bread made with currants. The more soul cakes people received, the more prayers they had to say for the dead family members of the donors. During this time, people believed the dead remained in limbo for a while after death. They also thought that prayer, even by strangers, could speed up a soul’s passage to heaven.

There was another recording of the handing out of souls cakes, this time to poor citizens. It was also in exchange for prayers for the family’s dead relatives. The church encouraged this as a way to replace the practice of leaving food and wine on doorsteps for roaming spirits.

Europeans and Celts believed that to avoid the spirits, they should wear masks when they left their homes. The Celts also believed that on Halloween, the disembodied spirits of everyone who had died that past year, would come back to search for bodies to possess. So the people put out all their fires and disguised themselves with masks and costumes and marched around town trying to ward off the spirits.

Today, families can avoid having tricks played on them if they give the kids who wander door-to-door, Halloween treats.

Party Time

Eventually, the customs of European immigrants combined with American and American Indian customs. Although annual autumnal festivals were common, the very first American Halloween celebrations were called ‘play parties.’ At these public events people celebrated the harvest, shared stories of the dead, told each other’s fortunes, danced, sang, and told ghost stories. During the second half of the 19th century, a new flood of millions of immigrants fleeing the Ireland potato famine of 1846 came to America. This created the meshing of Irish and English Halloween traditions, and people began dressing up in costumes and going house to house for visits. In the 1800’s there was a push to make Halloween more of a community-based event, and anything scary and gross was forbidden. In the 20th century, because of the 1950’s baby boom, there were a lot of children. Vandalism increased during the celebration of Halloween.

Traditions or Trade-Offs?

As told before, the idea of bobbing for apples could have come from the Roman goddess of the harvest and her scared fruit of apples.

The name ‘witch’ comes from the Saxon Wicca meaning ‘wise one.’ A sacred ointment was rubbed on the skin of the which, to give them a feeling of flying.

The use of Jack-O-Lanterns perhaps comes from when children used to carve out potatoes or turnips and light them for Halloween gatherings. The name Jack most likely comes from a story of ‘Jack the Irish Villain.’ It was about a man rejected by good and evil, who wandered the world forever looking for a place to rest. His only warmth came from a small candle in a rotten potato. With the Irish potato famine from 1845-50, almost 700,000 people immigrated to the Americas. They brought with them the Jack-O-Lantern tradition but turnips were scarce. The pumpkin became a good replacement because there were a lot of them around.

Masks were worn to scare off demons and evil spirits and to keep people from being recognized.

Sources: The Holiday Spot, Halloweenishere, Jerry Wilson

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Learning Links for Halloween History

A Most Bewitching Night: The History of Halloween
If you're looking for a very in depth history of the Halloween holiday, this article will fit the bill. From its roots in ancient Celtic festivals, Roman festivals, and the Christian festivals of All Saints and All Souls days, this article takes a look at how the festival has changed through time, eventually becoming our Halloween night of trick or treating fun.
Highly recommended Source: Random History

History Channel
This exhibit covers the ancient origins of Halloween, modern traditions, and the evolution of the holiday. Choose from three ghost stories, read about Halloween around the world, and find out about our country’s most historic haunts.
Source: A & E Television Networks

Halloween is Here
This fun site has many options for scary fun including games, costume ideas, ghost stories, and coloring fun. Visit the ghoul school, get some rancid recipes, or visit the haunted house if you dare!
Source: Halloween is Here

Halloween Lesson Plans
Get kids interested in everything from history to math with these Halloween lesson plans.
Source: The Lesson Plans Page

The Halloween Spot
Besides the usual historical information, you’ll find some spooky tales, craft ideas, games, recipes, jokes, music, masks, and screen savers. Post messages, find friends, or get some really cool party ideas.
Source: The Holiday Spot

Ben & Jerry's Flavor Graveyard
There not just about ice cream! Play lots of Halloween online games, check out the flavor graveyard, coloring book, print n’ play games, and Halloween e-cards.
Source: Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream

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