by Kyle Leahy Walsh
Halloween is a fun time for trick or treating, mischief, horror, fright and hoodoo voodoo! Why is that? How did these Halloween traditions get started? They mostly come from Celtic paganism in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and parts of Britain and Northern France. The holiday is based on Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’), their New Year which was celebrated on Nov 1st.
The Celts, an ancient pagan people, were very superstitious. Their lives depended on the growing and successfully harvesting their crops. They believed that Samhain was the time when ghosts and spirits came out to haunt. They would appease these spirits by giving them treats. During some Celtic celebrations of Samhain, villagers would disguise themselves in costumes made of animal skins to drive away ghostly visitors. They prepared banquet tables with food offerings that were left out to calm the unwelcome spirits.
The lighting of large bonfires was another big part of Samhain celebrations. These bonfires, thought to be a cleansing ritual for these people, attracted insects, rodents, and bats. The association between bats and Halloween can perhaps be attributed to these early ancient rituals. The Celts also are probably responsible for the ritual of carving pumpkins that is largely practiced at Halloween. However, they used turnips to make crude lanterns, because that’s what was available to them. They carved ghoulish faces into them, once again, to hopefully scare off evil spirits.
In later centuries, people began dressing as ghosts, demons and other wicked creatures. They performed antics in exchange for food and drink. This custom, known as mumming, dates back to the Middle Ages. As Christianity spread into Celtic lands, it gradually blended with the older pagan rituals. The church designated November 1st as All Saints’ Day and November 2nd as All Souls’ Day. It was a time for honoring the dead. October 31st is “Eve of All Saints” or “All Hallow’s Eve” or “Halloween”.
Poor people would visit the houses of wealthier families. They would receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives. Known as souling, this practice was later taken up by children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts such as food, money and ale. Young people also took part in a tradition called guising. They dressed up in costumes and accepted offerings from various households. Instead of pledging to pray for the dead, they would sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke or perform another sort of “trick” before collecting their treat. It’s thought that mumming, souling and guising are the beginnings of trick-or-treating.
As immigrants came to the New World, especially those fleeing Ireland’s potato famine in the 1840s, they brought their traditions with them and helped popularize Halloween. In the early 20th century, Irish and Scottish communities revived the Old World traditions of souling and guising in the United States. By the 1920s pranks had become the Halloween activity of choice for rowdy young people. Unfortunately, these pranks sometimes amounted to thousands of dollars’ worth of damages each year in major metropolitan areas. During the Great Depression, with so many people homeless and hungry, the problem with Halloween mischief often turned into vandalism, physical assaults and sporadic acts of violence.
Some believe that it was the excessive pranking on Halloween that led to the organized, community trick-or-treating tradition of the 1930s. The outbreak of World War II made children stop trick-or-treating because of sugar rationing. During the post war baby boom, Halloween trick or treating once again became a national past-time in America’s cities and suburbs. Today, Halloween has become a huge money making industry with candy, costumes, movies and decorations. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween, making it the nation’s second-largest commercial holiday. However, you celebrate, have a spooktacular and safe Halloween!