Halloween has always been a festival for ghosts, goblins, and playing devilish pranks but over the centuries the reasons behind these activities have changed. Halloween activities are currently done for the most part by children for fun, but in the past they were done with deathly earnest, by adults.
All Hallows Eve
Halloween was the festival called All Hallow’s Eve and celebrated by the Celts in Ireland in the Fifth Century B.C. At the end of summer, Oct 31st , it was believed that all people who had died the previous year would return to re-inhabit a body.
The Irish households would blow out any fires on this day and purposely make their homes cold and uncomfortable to prevent the spirits from entering. The homeowners would then congregate outside around a large bonfire to honor the sun god for the harvest and to frighten the spirits away from the village.
To continue to frighten these spirits looking for a body to take over, the Celts would dress up as demons, witches, hobgoblins, and other scary creatures. They would then walk around their house, the village, and the neighbor’s houses in a noisy manner to further send the spirits back to the underworld. Any village that was considered to be possessed would be sacrificed in fire as a lesson to any spirits considering human takeover.
Celtic Halloween Practices
Following this lead, the Romans copied Celtic Halloween practices but in A.D. 61 they outlawed human sacrifices and substituted the custom of effigies. The Romans would bury statuettes with a pharaoh in place of living attendants who were once entombed with their leader. In time this belief in spirit possession waned and many aspects of the Halloween celebration lightened.
Then in the 1840s during the Irish potato famine when the Irish came to America, they brought with them the Halloween customs of costume and mischief. The New England Irish youths loved to overturn outhouses and to unhinge front gates on their American counterparts.
The Irish also brought with them a custom that the agriculture from New England forced them to modify. The Celts had a tradition where they would hollow out and carve a demon face on a large turnip. Using a candle they lit the inside of the turnip. But the immigrants found few turnips in the new land but did discover large fields of pumpkins.
Thus the Jack-o-Lanterns were born. The name Jack-o-Lantern also originated with the Irish. It comes from an old Irish folk legend about a man named Jack who was notorious for his drunken and stingy ways. Jack tricked the devil into climbing up a tree and then carved a cross into the trunk of the tree. Satan was trapped in the tree until he swore he’d never tempt Jack to sin again.
But when Jack died he found himself barred from the comforts of heaven because of his awful life and refused entrance into hell from an unforgiving Satan. He was condemned to wander in frigid darkness until judgment day and he begged the devil for a light to find his way. Satan, despite having thousands of embers, only allowed Jack to have one burning coal that would only burn for a short time. Jack chewed a turnip hollow and put the coal in to make it last longer. This is the basis for the Jack-o-Lantern.
Trick or Treat
The custom of trick or treat, while not an Irish custom, does have its start in ninth –century Europe. Each All Soul’s Day the Christians would walk from village to village begging for square biscuits with jelly, called soul cakes. The beggars promised to offer up prayers in proportion to the givers generosity. The amount of prayers the dead person amassed was significant in a practical way to pray the sinner out of purgatory. As time progressed the custom took on a more gentle aspect with candy, treats and cakes being given on a door to door basis.
Halloween has evolved into one of the most cherished holidays next to Christmas, by children and adults alike. While it may seem a typically American holiday, the Irish and other European counties have contributed to the holiday to make it unique and multi-culturally.