There are quite a number of holidays in the world, each having different reasons for being observed, different degrees of significance, and different levels of popularity, depending on where one is located.
Among the holidays, I am most fascinated with that which features a pumpkin lantern, scary costumes and decorations, and kids shouting “trick or treat” to their neighbors at dusk. I am talking about Halloween.
I find Halloween the most interesting among all the world holidays, mainly because it is foreign to me. I want to find out its history: how it came to be, where it originated, and how it became such a popular tradition practiced in many parts of the world. I also want to know the basic tenets surrounding its popularity and practice.
Commonly observed on the eve of October 31, Halloween is a holiday for remembering and honoring the dead. It is closely linked to All Souls’ Day (also called Hallowmas or All Hallows Days) and All Saint’ Day, which are both considered holy days in the Roman Catholic Church.
All Saints’ Day was established in the 9th Century to honor the saints of the Christian church, whereas All Souls’ Day was established a century later to help purify the spirits of the dead. Both celebrations are said to have pagan origins (Santino, 1994a; Santino, 1994b; Lanford, n.d.).
Halloween is a very old tradition. Its origins date back from many thousand years ago. And how it is currently being celebrated is very far removed from how it used to be practiced, mainly because many cultures have added ‘flavor’ to it through the centuries. Halloween originated from the Celts.
The Celts, like many other pagans, worshipped nature. They had many gods, their favorite being the sun. They believed that the sun was the one responsible for the beautiful earth and everything that grew on it. (Landford, n.d.; Santino, 1994b).
According to Lanford, the Celts “marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter by celebrating a holiday in late autumn” (Lanford, n.d.). Among the holidays celebrated by the Celts is the Samhain, which heavily influenced later Halloween celebrations.
Samhain was celebrated on the eve of October 31 until the following day, November 1. The Celts believed that on the eve of Samhain, the spirits of the departed roamed the earth. As such, they offered food and drink to ward the spirits off. They also performed rituals at sacred hilltops, where they offered human and animal sacrifices.
However, when the Celtic lands were conquered by the Roman Empire by the end of the first century A.D., the Romans adopted some of the traditions of the Celts, thus creating a mixture of Celtic and Catholic religious observances.
In Britain, which used to be a part of Celtic lands, the Romans had incorporated some Samhain customs into their own pagan harvest festival, which honors Pomona, goddess of fruit trees, to make it easier for the Romans to conquer the Celts (Landford, n.d.) completely.
In areas that were not completely conquered by the Romans, like Ireland and Scotland, however, pure Celtic influences stayed on much longer. In these areas, the Samhain custom was abandoned only during the earlier part of the Middle Ages, when the locals converted to Christianity.
One of the strategies employed by the Roman Catholic Church to win over the loyalty of the converts was incorporating some customs of the conquered lands into its religious traditions. One example of this is Halloween.
In 835 AD, Pope Gregory IV replaced Samhain with All Saints’ Day. All Souls’ Day, closer in spirit to Samhain and modern Halloween, was first instituted at a French monastery in 998 and quickly spread throughout Europe.
Folk observances linked to these Christian holidays, including Halloween, thus preserved many of the ancient Celtic customs associated with Samhain (Santino, 1994a; Santino 1994b; Lanford, n.d.).
There are traditions observed during Halloweens that are believed to have no basis in Christianity. This is mainly because some of these traditions are influences of other religions and beliefs, specifically those of the Celtic tribes.
One example of this is the jack-o’-lantern, which originated from Scotland during the Medieval period. But instead of the carved up pumpkin which are used in present-day Halloween celebrations, the earlier jack-o’-lanterns were turnips.
Present Halloween festivities feature folk beliefs that have to do with death and the supernatural. Decorations during the holiday include imagery on death, like cobwebs, human skeletons, and skulls, and costumes based on supernatural beliefs, stories, and traditions, like those Dracula, White Lady, witches, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and so on.
Even natural objects that are believed to bring bad omen, like spiders, black cats, and bats, are also featured during Halloween celebrations as either decorations or costumes. But the most celebrated of all the Halloween decorations is the jack-o’-lantern.
The jack-o’-lantern is a pumpkin that was hollowed-out and then carved to resemble a monstrous face. Inside it is a candle or a bulb, illuminating it. The jack-o’-lantern is based on British tales, which say that the soul of a dead person named Jack O’Lantern was barred from both heaven and hell and was thus condemned to roam the earth aimlessly with his lantern.
As previously mentioned, the traditional jack-o-lantern used to be carved from turnip, potato, or beet. But the turnips were not readily available in America, so the pumpkin was used as a replacement. Placed on windows, the lanterns represent the souls of the departed loved ones and served as a protection against bad spirits (Landford, n.d.; Barth, 1972)
An interesting feature of Halloween celebrations is trick or treat where children dressed as a witch, a vampire, a ghost, or any other supernatural character go from house to house to solicit candies or treats from the house owners in their neighborhood.
The children greet every house owner with the cry, “Trick or Treat.” The greeting suggests that the house owner should present them with a treat. Otherwise, some form of a prank will be committed against them.
Although ‘Trick or Treat’ still widely practiced in many Christian nations, its practice has declined to begin in the 1970s. This may be largely due to studies suggesting the negative effect of junks, like candies, on children’s health.
Moreover, many parents are now concerned about their children still going around their neighborhood after dark. What many parents do now is to accompany their children in their Trick or Treat, or have their children accompanied by a responsible adult.
Another feature of Halloween celebration is a custom party, either for kids or for adults, or both. Traditional costumes as well as costumes inspired by pop cultures, such as movie characters, and even politicians are used.
For such parties, adults often use costumes with “satirical or humorous overtones” (Lanford, n.d.; Barth, 1972). In most costume parties, best in costume contests are usually held, where the hosts or chosen judges choose among the guests the one who is wearing the best costume.
At present, Halloween is already a popular holiday, especially in Christian nations, although there was some resistance from some Christian sects, like the English Puritans who rejected the celebration of Halloween on the basis that it is a Catholic and pagan tradition. The Puritans are members of a strict Protestant sect (Lanford, n.d.; Santino, 1994b).
Despite the resistance from the Puritans, however, Halloween spread in many Christian countries in the world. Its spread was primarily ensured by the spread of Catholicism. In the United States, British colonists transplanted the observance of Halloween in Virginia and Maryland. Moreover, in the mid 19th Century, Irish who came into the United States as immigrants likewise helped popularize Halloween throughout the United States (Lanford, n.d.).
According to Lanford, young people in the 19th and early 20th centuries tended to observe Halloween by “perpetrating minor acts of vandalism, such as overturning sheds or breaking windows” (Lanford, n.d).
The ritual of trick or tricking started sometime in the beginning of the 1930s when Halloween mischief was slowly transformed from merely perpetuating vandalistic acts, to trick or tricking in the neighborhood.
As time passed by, Halloween treats became more plentiful as the number of tricks decreased. It is believed that the trick or treat was introduced to lessen the pranks and destruction that typically accompanied the Halloween celebrations (Santino, 1994a; Santino 1994b).
In some areas, however, pranks still survived. A day before Halloween, there is such an event called Mischief Night in some areas of the United States, where vandalism sometimes got out of hand. Landford (n.d.) shares: “in Detroit, Michigan, Mischief Night — known there as Devil’s Night —provided the occasion for waves of arson that sometimes destroyed whole city blocks during the 1970s and 1980s.”
Beginning in the 1970s, Halloween has become increasingly popular. Adult celebrations of this occasion feature elaborate satirical costumes, boisterous festivities, and drunken revelry while the costume-donning kids go house to house, treat-or-tricking their neighbors, happy with the candies that they get.
At present, Halloween is one of the most celebrated Holidays in the world, with both the young ones and the adults taking part in the festivities. It is also among the most commercialized. During Halloween, costumes, masks, and decors dominate the malls and commercial centers. Restaurants and event venues also have a heyday during the celebrations. Indeed, Halloween is such a fascinating holiday.
Barth, Edna. (1972). Witches, Pumpkins, and Grinning Ghosts. New York: Seaburry Press.
Landford, Brent. (n.d.) “Halloween.” MSN Encarta.
Santino, Jack. (1994a). All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. University of Illiois Press.
Santino, Jack. (1994b). Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life. Knoxville. University of Tennessee Press.