Trick or Treat: The True Origin of Halloween

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Kids in halloween costumesThe yearly holiday of Halloween is one of the most anticipated holidays of the year for children worldwide; however, this candy filled holiday was not always the holiday it is today. It was not always that children dressed like demons and posed the well-known question “trick or treat”, it was not always that houses displayed decorations and families came together to walk through neighborhoods. The holiday we know as Halloween today did not begin with any of the commonly known traditions of today’s celebrations, in fact the holiday had much more peculiar and mixed beginnings.

The Origin of Halloween

The actual origin of Halloween has been argued by various historians with some who believe that Halloween found its roots in the Roman Pomona feasts that celebrated the Roman goddess of fruit and seeds and some believe that Halloween found its roots in Parentalia, the festival of the dead. While these two festivals seem to give something to the story of Halloween; however, it is the belief of the majority that the holiday of Halloween actually derives from Samhain, the Celtic festival which celebrates the end of the summer and the beginning of the darker days of the year. The superstitious Celts believed that during the latter half of the year as the days became darker much more quickly that the boundary between the other world and ours became so thin that spirits were able to move through to our world and cause havoc.

The Celtic Festival of Samhain

Zombie behind tombstone on HalloweenDuring the Celtic festival of Samhain people would dress in costume in an attempt to scare away the evil spirits. During this time when spirits were believed to pass between worlds families would invite their ancestors in to their homes but do everything they could to ward off the more harmful spirits including wearing the costumes mentioned above as well as masks.

Also utilized to scare away the harmful spirits of Samhain were large turnips, which were carved much like today’s Halloween pumpkins. These jack-o-lantern turnips would be placed in the windows of homes in an attempt to frighten away any evil spirits. It was the belief of the Celts that if they or their turnips resembled scary spirits then the spirits that crossed from the other world would avoid them and their homes in the belief that they had already been tagged by a spirit.

When is Halloween Celebrated?

The actual celebration of Halloween occurs every year on October 31st, also referred to as All Hallows Eve. In many religious sects the day following all hallows eve, All Saints Day, is a day dedicated to the celebration of all of the saints both known and unknown. A few days following All Saints Day comes All Soul’s Day, a day dedicated to all the souls of those who believed who have now departed.

Where Does the Name Halloween Come From?

All Hallows Eve is actually the base of the origin of the name “Halloween” after the more commonly used phrase “All Hallows Eve” became “All Hallows Even” and then later it was shortened to Halloween in the 16th century. Throughout the years this holiday known as Halloween came to be something of a melting pot of ideas contributed by various cultures and belief systems. Europeans came together and meshed Celtic ideas, Catholic ideas and the Roman religious rituals in to one day of celebration that fell around the time that the Celtic tradition of Samhain fell, the turning of the seasons when the world became a darker place by virtue of the sun’s position in the sky. Combining the Celtic idea of Samhain, the Catholic beliefs of All Saints Eve and All Souls Day, and the traditional Roman celebration of Parentalia created the holiday we now know as Halloween.

Cultural Halloween Traditions

While these days the celebration of Halloween has become much more commercialized many of the traditions that remain today hail from older cultural traditions. While commonly today individuals do not necessarily understand the reason for certain Halloween traditions, their roots almost always return to the mesh of cultural t

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Would you give us those sources from where you got these from? It may seem implausible to understand these ‘history’ of Halloween when someone don one of the costumes to scare away evil spirits. There is no known records to tell us about these costumes worn by Celts. Only records can be given out were from Medieval era, except Caesar and other Roman and Greek historians, however no known records at all. I know because I’ve studied this history for over 30 years and am majoring in Anthropology through Celtic Studies. If you would please provide those sources you’ve given to us in this webpage, then it would be more credible to follow the story.

Thinking about these origins of these holidays and the traditions that went with them, it is hard not to chuckle at just how superstitious human beings have been over the years. Dressing up in costumes to scare demons away, sometimes even in a graveyard, seems very silly now, but it obviously got started somewhere and that means enough people did it in earnest to get things started. I suspect that people would likely be looked at in a harsh light if they did such a thing today and expressed their intent. It makes you wonder how we will be looked at hundreds of years from now for the things that we did.

The other thing that stood out to me from this article is that, again much like Christmas, the holiday in its current form has undergone vast changes thanks to commercialism and the marketing of things around it. Halloween lends itself well to commercialism. There are literally millions of dollars spent every year on things such as costumes, decorations, and of course tons and tons of candy. Beyond that there are also thousands of parties thrown across the country for kids and adults alike that give people a chance to get a little silly with a costume and whatever else allows them to cut loose.

Christmas is also very commercialized and in a sense, it is a more tragic case of American materialism completely taking over a traditional holiday and turning it into something completely different than what the holiday is really about.

Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ in all of the Christian religions, but in very few advertisements or the general marketing of Christmas sale events and other types of consumer activity is the image of Jesus Christ brought into focus. We see a lot more of the typical Santa Claus and Frosty The Snowman images than we do of anything religious and although I do not have a problem with it, it becomes a little annoying when you boil it down to what it really is, another way to get people to spend their money and do so faster than usual.

I know it now really as an excuse to go out and party. I went to college at the University of Wisconsin, where the annual Halloween celebration became something of a legend itself. Every year, over 30,000 people from out of town would come in, dress up and get various degrees of drunk before pouring out into the main area of State Street. Generally, things would be pretty fun. You could see some of the most creative costumes imaginable and some of the most creative behavior you could not even imagine.

One year, with a particularly large group of guests in town, the party took a turn for the more destructive and riot-like behavior started to break out up and down the State Street mall. Police were woefully understaffed and underprepared to deal with something like this and significant property damage occurred. It was an unfortunate byproduct of a truly fun and enjoyable even. The next year, the police were much more prevalent around the area and much quicker to act when things got a little out of control. Many students and party goers were pepper sprayed as a result of the police intervention and things have not been the same there since.

Nowadays, to participate in the Madison Halloween party, one needs to buy tickets ahead of time, pass through a security checkpoint center, and generally remain on their best behavior with the threat of incarceration breathing down their necks. It is a sad but true reality of life that people will almost always ruin it for everybody else no matter how good or positive the event may be.

I have not participated in a Halloween event for a couple of years now, maybe it is just me getting older, but I still love the holiday very much. It is interesting to think about how it got started so many generations ago and how it got to where it is today. We all know it as something much different than what it got started out as, but there are a few linking qualities that keep it connected to the past. I am sure that the tradition will continue on for generations to come, who knows what it will become with the changes yet in store.

Halloween is my favorite holiday. Not so much because of the candy (although that helps!) but simply because it’s so fun to be able to dress up and play the person you’ve always wanted to be (especially if it’s completely impossible in real life).

The human imagination is powerful, and it’s not just for kids. Without it, would engineering and science have taken us as far as we’ve gotten today? I doubt it…now all we need is a national “Imagination” holiday or something similar.

Very interesting – I had no idea Halloween had such an interesting history. I think it’s particularly sad how Halloween has transformed into this commercialized, sexy holiday that’s all about candy and getting it on. I like the idea of the spooky costumes and honoring the tradition of scaring out the evil monsters much better. Thanks for sheding light on this topic during this important time of year!