- Megan Bingham
October 31st: a night for spooks, shrieks, and overall thrills. Monsters, witches, ghosts, pumpkins--where did they all come from? Read on to learn more about this bewitching time of year.
Did you know that Halloween (or Hallowe'en, Allhallowe'en, All Hallows' Eve) is one of the world’s oldest holidays? It was originally a Gaelic/Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in), marking the end of harvest and the beginning of winter, or the "dark half" of the year. The Pagan holiday was primarily celebrated in Gaelic Ireland. Traditionally, it is celebrated from October 31 to November 1, as the Celtic day began and ended at sunset. Cattle were brought down to winter pastures after six months in the summer pastures. It was also time to choose which animals would be slaughtered for winter's food.
Many druids believed that the veil between this world and the supernatural world could easily be crossed during Samhain. Offerings of food and drink would be left outside, and places at the dinner table would be made for long-dead relatives who may make a visit on October 31. Bonfires were lit as protection from these earth-bound spirits. It has been suggested that the fires served as a symbolic Sun, helping the powers of warmth and light hold back the decay and darkness of winter. At household festivities in the Gaelic regions of England and Wales, there were many rituals and games involving divination, or an attempt to gain insight of the future through supernatural means. Apple bobbing spawned from these celebrations, along with items hidden in food. It was said if you found an item, like a ring or coin, within your cake or pie it meant good luck!
"Guising" or going door-to-door in costume originated in the 16th century in parts of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Usually, they recited songs for the exchange of food as offerings for the dead. The first reference to this tradition in North America occurred in 1911. The term "trick or treat" did not become popular until 1927. Playing pranks on Samhain were so common in Ireland, it was nicknamed "Mischief Night" in some parts. Turnips or other large gourds acted as lanterns and were often carved with scary faces. They were also set on windowsills to ward off evil spirits. In the 20th century, these mysterious lights were generally known as jack-o'-lanterns. The American tradition of carving pumpkins is recorded in 1837.
When the Romans took over the Gaelic lands, they adopted the day to honor their own deities. Eventually, the Roman Catholic Church adopted the day as All Saints', or All Hallows', to honor saints who did not have a specific feast day of their own. The name gradually changed to Halloween. The modern imagery of October 31 comes from many sources, including Christan theology, national customs, works of Gothic horror fiction (such as Frankenstein and Dracula) and classic horror films.
Other countries have their own celebrations at this time of year, but with different meanings. In Mexico, particularly in the Central and South regions, people celebrate El Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead, which begins October 31 and is celebrated through November 2. This is a time to honor and celebrate the dead. Families clean and decorate their relatives' graves and on the night of November 1, everyone meets at the graveyard. In Spanish tradition, the Day of the Dead includes festivals and parades.