All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween—whichever you choose to call it—is a beloved holiday across the country. With its rich and fun traditions for those of all ages, this night is certainly one to make memories and revel in the feeling of fright. But Halloween wasn’t always about candy and costumes, and it’s important to understand where these traditions came from to appreciate them to their fullest. So, from its early years to the modern-day Halloween we all know and love, we’ll take you through a brief history of the origins of Halloween traditions. This way, you’ll know exactly when the ghosts of this spooky night began to haunt the world.
Halloween’s Humble Beginnings
When it comes to the early years of the Halloween celebration, you should know that it wasn’t just one holiday but two. The first was a Celtic Pagan holiday known as Samhain, a Gaelic term meaning “summer’s end,” celebrated several thousand years ago. It was a day dedicated to recognizing the end of the warm harvest season and the beginning of winter. It was also a time when the cold, darker half of the year emerged and the veil between the living and the dead was at its weakest for many people.
The Romans also had a version of this holiday called Pomona, which honored the Roman goddess of fruits, trees, and, therefore, harvests. This day also marked the end of the harvest season, thanking Pomona for a bountiful year and preparing for the long winter ahead. Individuals left offerings to Pomona, often apples, to appease the goddess and celebrated around large bonfires well into the cool evenings. This practice may be why the apple is an iconic Halloween symbol to this day.
As the Romans moved in to conquer Celtic territory, these holidays combined into one. Whether it be their core beliefs or their practices and traditions, all aspects of Samhain and Pomona merged into one. Then, with the eventual Christian influence and the establishment of All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Hallows’ Eve (October 31st), Halloween as we know it arose.
Classic Halloween Traditions
But what’s a discussion about Halloween history without the ghosts, goblins, and darkness? Halloween has several classic traditions, each spookier than the last. They come from a time when fear surrounding the winter months was commonplace. Here are some of the interesting origins of well-known Halloween traditions.
Ghosts and Ghouls
As we mentioned previously, one of the most common beliefs surrounding Samhain and Pomona was that the barrier between the living and the dead became temporarily blurred. So during the night of October 31st, ghosts walked the Earth, and individuals lived in fear of their trickery. From damaging crops to scaring people to possessing the living, ghosts caused a series of problems during this night in people’s minds. As such, there were several ways that villagers sought to protect themselves.
Believe it or not, the original jack-o’-lanterns weren’t pumpkins. Turnips were the root vegetable of choice back in ancient Ireland, though potatoes and beets were also popular. Hallowed out and illuminated by candlelight, these creepy-faced vegetables warded off evil spirits on the night of Samhain. It was only later, during the early 1800s, that individuals started using pumpkins instead. They were easier to carve and yielded larger numbers during the harvest season.
As for the name “jack-o’-lantern,” some people think it comes from the British phrase, “Jack with the lantern,” referring to a night watchman. Others believe it stems from old Irish folklore about a man named Stingy Jack who tricked the Devil into granting him a prolonged life.
Dressing Up in Costumes
Placing jack-o’-lanterns outside of homes wasn’t the only way people kept spirits at bay. In fact, they would even go so far as to disguise themselves for the evening. Initially made of animal skins and other materials gathered in the area, costumes became the primary defense against spirits and possession. In dressing up as the monsters that they feared, villagers would feel protected from supernatural influence.
Witches and Magic
The association between Halloween and magic also comes from the blurring between realms. Because people thought this veil was weak during this time, they also believed that those with supernatural abilities, such as fortune-tellers and mediums, were at their most powerful. This added another element of fear to Halloween night and connected the idea of spells and witchcraft to the darkness of winter.
Sprits weren’t the only ones causing mischief around Halloween. Whether under the influence of possession or not, children often pulled a series of pranks around this holiday. Because people already saw this as a time of darkness and evil, there were ample opportunities to blame things on a wayward spirit. Even approaching modern times, tricks are common on Halloween, and they can be all kinds of acts depending on the child.
Many individuals offered treats to help preoccupy local kids and stop their mischievous antics. Trick-or-treating quickly became an activity that distracted children from causing trouble on Halloween night. Interestingly enough, this practice mimics the Samhain and Pomona tradition of leaving out offerings to appease a goddess or trouble-making ghost.
The Modern Halloween
Halloween as we know it today is a fun evening full of sweets and harmless fright. Whether you’re trick-or-treating or looking for a few thrills in the form of a haunted house, you can enjoy these festivities. But despite the many changes to these activities, they still have many similarities to the practices of ancient times. People still wander the streets in costumes and jack-o’-lanterns guard homes’ exteriors. So who’s to say that the ghosts don’t still linger around as well?
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