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The History of Halloween

Every October 31st,  people throughout the United States celebrate "Halloween."  A holiday whose origins date to 835 A.D.  In that year, the Roman Catholic Church declared November 1 a church holiday to honor all saints. The name "Halloween" is a short way of saying All Hallow's Eve, the night before All Saints' Day (hallow means holy or sacred).

Although Halloween gets its name from a Christian festival, the customs are mostly of Celtic origin, from an ancient Celtic festival in honor of Samhain, lord of death.  Some of the customs are also from the Roman festival in honor of Pomona, goddess of gardens and orchards.  The colors of Halloween, black and orange, suggest both ideas - death and harvest.

The "spooky" part of Halloween comes from the Celts, who occupied the British Isles and northern France during ancient and medieval times.  The Celts worshipped gods of nature.  They feared the coming of winter, associating it with death and evil spirits.  Every year on October 31, the last day of the year on the old pagan calendar, the Druids (Celtic Priests and teachers) built huge bonfires to scare away the demons of evil and death.  They threw animals and crops from the harvest into the fire as gifts to satisfy the evil spirits, and dressed in ugly and frightening costumes so that the demons would think that they were one of them and would do them no harm.  Supposedly, on this evening ghosts rose from their graves and witches rode through the air on broomsticks or black cats. Also, the souls of dead relatives and friends were expected to return to earth for a visit.  The Druid bonfires were built on hilltops to guide these spirits back home.

From the Druid religion, then, comes the custom of dressing up in costumes and the symbols of Halloween: ghosts, skeletons, devils, witches, black cats, and owls.  The jack-o'-lantern is also of Celtic origin.  It was an Irish custom to hollow out turnips and place lighted candles inside them to scare evil spirits away from the house.  In the United States, the native pumpkin is used to make a jack-o'-lantern.  First the pumpkin is hollowed out; then holes are cut in the shell to make eyes, nose and mouth.  A candle is placed inside, and the jack-o'-lantern is placed by the window.

The Irish also introduced the "trick-or-treat" custom hundreds of years ago.  Groups of farmers would travel from house to house requesting food for the village's Halloween festivities.  They would promise good luck to generous contributors and would threaten those who were stingy.  Today, American children dress up and go "trick-or-treating" for candy.

The Druid religion lasted longest in Ireland and Scotland, and Halloween was most important in these two countries.  In the late nineteenth century, Irish immigrants brought their Halloween customs to the United States.  Today, Halloween is much more important in the United States than it is in Great Britain.

Submitted by M. Mordy, from an old ALA Newsletter]

Halloween Quiz