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The History of Halloween

Dressing up as a hideous goblin or a blood thirsty vampire is what some of us look forward to for Halloween, but was it always about “dressing up?” Did people always pass out candy or did they hand over other things to bag toting and masked individuals? I decided to search this topic and found out for myself what Halloween was really about.

Dr. Jack Santino, a Ph.D professor in Folklore at University of Pennsylvania, says “Halloween had its beginnings in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival of the dead.” The original name of what is now called Halloween for us was based off the Celtic festival day “Samhain” (pronounced Sah-ween). This day marked the first day of winter and the end of a harvest.

After several evolving attempts of Christian missionaries to convert the Celtic people, a special day of celebration called All Saints Day, in the end, was assigned to November 1. This was a direct attempt to change the Celtics way of worshiping the dead on Samhain. While this church never succeeded entirely, the extent of the Celtic’s worship did lessen. It was only when America westernized this celebration that the day was reassigned to October 31.

Eventually, All Saints Day became known as All Hollows, and then eventually became Hallow Evening, and then finally, the more modern Halloween. To honor the dead, people would leave cakes called “Soul Cakes” and people would go “a soulin” for them. People dressed as the dead or supernatural creatures would perform acts for the cakes. While we call this trick or treating now, the old term for this act then was called mumming.

Over time, the cakes were swapped with candies, drinks and other baked goods. The mimicry of costumes resembling the dead or supernatural creatures worshiped by the Celtics also changed to fit more modern popular culture, which, as Dr. Santino says, “is becoming once again an adult holiday or masquerade, like mardi Gras.”

The tradition of carving pumpkins into “Jack-O’-Lanterns” stem back to an old Irish Tale about a man called “Stingy Jack” and his shady encounters with the Devil. After his death, and because he made the Devil promise not to claim his soul to hell, God denies Jack to heaven too. The Irish would put carved out turnips in the windows to turn away Stingy Jack. When the immigrants came to America, they found pumpkins a more suitable vessel for carving.


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