A Short History of Halloween


When I was Rector of my first church in Norfolk, I gave a “Happy Halloween” greeting as Church was over. A woman in the congregation let me have it with both barrels of the shotgun as she left church that day. She gave me a lecture on Halloween being the “Devil’s Day” and there was nothing Christian about it. Well Halloween for me had always been a fun day to wear masks, carve pumpkins, etc. So, I went and did a little more digging for my own information. And this is what I found, kinda in a nutshell:


The origins of Halloween have been around for a while, but the day went by several names and traditions before settling on the popular trick-or-treating holiday we know today. The origins can be traced back to the Celtic festival, Samhain. This holiday was the Celtic end-of-the-year, after their harvest and before the winter months came. It was meant as a time to reflect on life and death, including those who were lost over the past year. Samhain was held on November 1st and the evening before the festival was known as All Hallows Eve, (Hallow means holy or sanctified, like Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name.) which would eventually be called Halloween. Because it was the eve of All Saints’ Day (Saints being made holy or sanctified).


The supernatural superstitions and ideals of the holiday mark back to the time of the Celts. It was believed that the real world and the afterworld merged the evening before the new year, causing spirits to roam on earth. Due to this spiritualism, the Celtic people would try to foresee the future with the help of the dead. The Celtics also burned bonfires in commemoration of the day, something that would be associated with the autumn holiday for years.


By 1000 A.D., the pagan Celtic holiday was eventually morphed into All Saints’ Day. It is believed that this was Christianity’s attempt to make the traditional holiday suit the Christian religion that a lot of Celts converted to. All Saints’ Day was created to celebrate the Christian martyrs and saints and another new holiday, All Souls’ Day, was for praying for the souls of the dead. This went off the life and death ideal of All Hallows Eve. This new celebration was held in similar ways as the pagan festival, such as still using bonfires. It was this Christian holiday that would later be rebranded as Halloween.


Trick-or-treating has been updated for modern society, but the idea of it has been around for a while. The going from door-to-door idea comes from All Souls’ Day. This was a day to celebrate and pray for the dead. The poor people would go from door to door for soul cake pastries. The wealthier neighbors would give the people the cake in exchange for a prayer for their dead relatives. This practice was referred to as “going a-souling”. Before this tradition, people left out food and wine for the spirits that were said to roam the world on the holiday. The tradition of souling was, instead, intended for children and less supernatural.


The idea of the dead roaming earth on Halloween also started the costume trend in America. Originally, people wore masks to disguise their faces to avoid seeing ghosts when outside on the autumn night. It was believed that if they could disguise themselves to look like part of the dead, the ghosts would leave them alone.


When the colonies were first founded, the celebration of Halloween was limited to the South, since the New England area was very religious and strict. In its early days in America, the holiday was mainly used to tell fortunes and ghost stories. It reached more areas when immigrants from countries such as Ireland, that celebrated the holiday from its beginning, continued to practice the festivities here.


Halloween parties, however, didn’t become a holiday standard until around the 1920s and 1930s. The party games, however, such as bobbing for apples, are old traditions associated with Halloween. Originally, it was believed that the first person to pick an apple during the game would be the first one to marry. A lot of earlier traditions associated with Halloween dealt with fortune-telling for young women about future spouses. For instance, one dealt with standing in a mirror with a candle. If you looked over your shoulder, you were supposed to see the face of the person you would marry. The holiday was eventually targeted towards younger children when there was a baby boom after WWII. Doing this also limited the vandalism issues that would occur on the holiday.


The idea of mischief on Halloween is not something new. The idea of pranking someone is referenced by saying, “trick-or-treat”, meaning that a house or family will be victim to pranks if a treat isn’t given. Today, it’s more of a saying than an actual meaning. So, I say, enjoy the day. Have fun!


We move the November 1st (Monday) Celebration of All Saints’ to next Sunday, November 7th. Also, please remember that on November 7 at 2 AM our time goes back to standard time. So time will fall back. Don’t forget to set your clocks accordingly! Blessings, Fr. Bill+

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