Why Do We Celebrate Halloween?Adam Brinkman
Halloween is kind of a weird holiday, right? People dress up in costumes and then go to parties where other people are also dressed in costumes. That, or they wander the neighborhood ringing doorbells and demanding treats from anyone who answers their door. That’s… weird, right?
Well, we think it’s weird, and we love it—so we did a deep dive into Halloween, its origins, how those traditions changed over time, and how we got to the (weird) modern celebration of Halloween in the United States. If you’ve ever wondered why we celebrate Halloween, read on because it’s truly wild!
Samhain (Tip: it’s pronounced SOW-en)
Starting at the beginning, our modern Halloween celebrations are descended from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, a celebration of the end of the harvest season, the beginning of winter, and the start of the Celtic new year.
Many pagan holidays are based on a sense of cosmic balance and include celebrations intended to honor that balance. That’s why ancient Samhain rituals paid equal attention to communing with the dead and celebrating life.
As an example, consider two common pagan rituals: the “dumb supper” and the bonfire. A “dumb supper” (or “silent supper”) is a somber affair that gives attendees a time and place to contemplate those who have been lost to death. Like the name implies, this is a meal served in silence without conversation.
Compare this with the ritual bonfires, which were lively festivals celebrating the harvest with music, dancing, and sympathetic magic rituals all around a giant bonfire or two—so it was kind of like Burning Man, but with slightly more ancient druids of unfathomable power.
As Christianity spread across the world, the church would sometimes declare Christian holidays on dates that were already the dates of ancient pagan holidays, intending to replace the pagan festivals with Christian ones.
This happened in 1000 A.D. when the church declared November 2nd All Souls’ Day, a holiday to honor the dead, to replace the Celtic festival of Samhain with a church-sanctioned one. The celebration of the holiday was basically the same, but it incorporated explicitly religious iconography like devils, angels, and saints.
This plan had only one flaw, but it was huge: Samhain’s bonfire night was usually celebrated before All Saints’ Day, and since this meant the people of the time weren’t forced to choose, they didn’t! They simply celebrated both holidays, and started calling Samhain “All Saints’ Eve,” or “All Hallows Eve,” which then evolved over centuries into the modern celebration of Halloween that we know and love.
Why Do We Wear Costumes?
Our ancestors were a little superstitious, and who could blame them? Winters were brutal, cold, and dark, with constant threat of death from exposure, lack of food, and pretty much anything else really. When the seasons changed and it was believed that ghosts and spirits could freely roam the mortal world, people would wear masks that looked like faces when they left their homes.
Some did this so the ghosts they encountered would mistake them for fellow ghosts; some did it so the ghosts wouldn’t be able to recognize them by their true face, and some folks probably did it because they were bored and needed to find some fun wherever they could—and hey, we get it!
Why Do We Trick-or-Treat?
The tradition of trick-or-treating most likely descends from part of the All Souls’ Day celebrations in England. On the day, poor citizens would beg for food from rich families, who would extend meager charity in exchange for the poor citizens’ promise to pray for the rich families’ dead relatives.
The traditional foodstuff for this exchange was a “soul cake,” a small round cake decorated with a cross. The flavor and texture of traditional soul cakes is similar to shortbread but with a sweet filling of allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and sometimes raisins or currants.
This practice (called “going a-souling”) was encouraged by the church as a way to discourage the traditional Samhain practice of leaving food and wine out for wandering spirits. Over the centuries, the general idea made its way to the American colonies, where it became a game for children, who would go door to door to all the houses in their neighborhood asking for treats and being given small gifts of food and coins.
Halloween Party Games and Rituals (for Eligible Young Women)
Many early Halloween parties in the 18th and 19th centuries included a playful sense of mysticism and the supernatural. Since the holiday celebrates looking to the future, party games tended to center on social interactions within the community, especially the pairing-off of all eligible young people.
There was no shortage of ways for a young woman to mystically identify her future husband during the harvest season, and the whole community would join in on watching the games play out.
- Method One: Eat a special sweet made of walnuts, hazelnuts, and nutmeg. This will bring dreams of your betrothed-to-be.
- Method Two: Name a hazelnut after each of your suitors, then toss them into a fire. If they burn fast, the love won’t last. If they explode out of the fire, he’ll be unfaithful.
- Method Three: Stand in a dark room and stare into a mirror. This sounds like the recipe for nightmares, but it’s supposed to reveal the face of your future husband.
Why Do We Carve Jack-o’-Lanterns?
The original jack-o’-lanterns, which became popular in 19th century Ireland, were made from hollowed out turnips or other root vegetables and used as improvised lanterns. The carvings were typically much more ornate than today’s and in the form of grotesque faces, sometimes complete with teeth.
This has been explained as being representative of evil spirits, or maybe to ward off evil spirits, or else it was representative of souls in purgatory. Turnips were plentiful in Ireland and parts of the Scottish Highlands where carving jack-o’-lanterns became a popular Halloween tradition.
When the Irish fled due to famine and came to America, they brought their tradition of carving root vegetables with them—and from that humble beginning, the American pumpkin Jack-O’-Lantern was born!
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