Halloween, or the Hallow E’en as they call it in Ireland, means All Hallows Eve, or the night before the All Hallows, All Saints, or All Souls Day, observed on November 1.
In Old English the word “hallow” meant “sanctify.” Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians used to observe All Hallows Day to honor all saints in heaven, known or unknown. They used to consider it with all solemnity as one of the most significant observances of the church year.
Despite this connection with the Roman Catholic Church, the American version of Halloween Day celebrations owes its origin to the pre-Christian Druid fire festival called Samhain, (pronounced sow-an), celebrated by the Celts in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The name, derived from Old Irish, means roughly “summer’s end.” A similar festival was also held by the ancient Britons. The festival of Samhain celebrates the end of the “lighter half” of the year and beginning of the “darker half,” and is sometimes regarded as the Celtic New Year.
The ancient Celts believed that the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits, both harmless and harmful, to pass through. The family’s ancestors were honored and invited home, while harmful spirits were warded off. It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks. The purpose was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces. These practices also changed over time to become more ritualized. As belief in spirit possession faded, the practice of dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches took on a more ceremonial role.
Samhain was also a time to take stock of food supplies and slaughter livestock for use in the winter months. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. All other fires were doused, and each home lit their hearth from the bonfire. The bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames. Sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual. Another common practice was divination, which often involved the use of food and drink.
When the Romans came to the British Isles to conquer, they adopted the Celtic practices as their own. By the first century, Samhain was absorbed into celebrations of some of the other Roman traditions that took place in October, such as their day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, which might explain the origin of our modern tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween.
The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for treats on holidays goes back to the Middle Ages, and includes Christmas wassailing. Trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval practice of souling, when peasant folk would go door to door on Hallowmas (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2). Early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could aid a soul’s speedy journey to heaven.
This celebration of Halloween was brought to America in the 1840’s by Irish immigrants fleeing their country’s potato famine. The word “trick” refers to a “threat,” which was generally benign, to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given. Throwing flour on people was a typical “trick.” At that time, the favorite pranks in New England included tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence gates. It wasn’t widespread in the United States until the 1930s, when the term “trick or treat” was first used in print in 1934.
After the sugar rationing of World War II ended and candy was once again readily available, national attention to trick-or-treating was given in October 1947 issues of the children’s magazines Jack and Jill and Children’s Activities and by Halloween episodes of the network radio programs The Baby Snooks Show in 1946 and The Jack Benny Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in 1948. The custom had become firmly established in popular culture by 1952, when Walt Disney portrayed it in the cartoon Trick or Treat, Ozzie and Harriet were besieged by trick-or-treaters on an episode of their television show, and UNICEF first conducted a national campaign for children to raise funds for the charity while trick-or-treating.
To learn more about the history of Halloween, read the post The History of Halloween Part 2 which follows this one.