Halloween is celebrated on October 31st when children run around going door to door asking for a trick or treat.
What was once a day to honor the change of the seasons and give respect to the dead had evolved into the commercialized community holiday that we know and love today. The gradual morphing of the festival occurred as Christianity and catholicism swept through the ancient European world. They blended pagan rites and celebrations into more subdued church-sanctioned holidays.
Many believe that today’s Halloween came from the old Celtic New Year’s celebration of Samhain (pronounced Saa-wn). This particular celebration was what foretold the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter.
The Celts believe that this was the night that the boundaries between the worlds were the thinnest. Large bonfires were usually lit, and offerings of season’s growth and beasts were given to the Celtic gods in the hopes of gaining the favor to assist them in surviving the winter. In their tradition, ghosts of the dead and other nefarious spirits return to the living world and ruin crops, sicken animals, and cause general mischief if not appeased.
To make any wandering spirits happy, people leave food and drink offerings outside of their dwellings this night. If traveling had to be done on Samhein, it was custom for the travelers to dress up in masks and animal skins to blend in with the spirits that were wandering about. These are thought of as the origins of the dressing up and going trick or treating of today’s Halloween.
All Hallows Eve
As Christianity spread, the church moved their all souls day, a festival honoring their saints and martyrs, to November 2nd. They were effectively trying to envelop the local pagan festival of Samhein into their own practice so that converting the pagans still following this tradition would be easier.
People observe this holiday in a similar fashion, as Samhein included dressing up as angels, devils, and saints, participating in parades, and lighting a massive bonfire in celebration. Another name for all souls day was all-hallows, which came from an older English word for all saints day. Thus the night before became all hallows eve.
Early Halloween in north America leaned in heavily on the trick side of the traditional trick or treat. Going so far in the early 1900s that whole towns were being vandalized on one night every year.
In 1914 a woman named Elizabeth Krebs, now dubbed the mother of modern Halloween, got her whole town involved in her plan of exhausting the town’s youth so that they had no energy left to cause mischief.
She created what was essentially the first Halloween party. She hired a band, put on a town-wide parade, and held a costume contest. The party was a success. Between the food, dancing, and contest, the town’s youth were too tired for any tricks that night.
This community-centered tradition continued until World War II, when sugar rations put a severe dent in the nation’s candy supply. The festivities were picked up again in the late 1940s with all the celebrations and traditions we are currently familiar with.
Regardless of what the origins are of this holiday, Halloween remains a popular holiday in modern times. Additionally, it is one of the most highly commercialized, right behind Christmas. It also allows the general populous a culturally acceptable way to revel in the concept of death.