Unmasking Halloween

Multinational children in Halloween costumesHalloween counts among the favorites of the fall holidays with children in America, but have you ever wondered how its unique traditions began?  Read on to learn more about the facts behind the fun of Halloween.

Many of the customs and traditions of Halloween were first brought to America by Irish and Scottish immigrants.  Originally a Celtic celebration known as Samhain, the modern day celebration we now know as Halloween now blends both a pagan and a Christian influence.

During the festival of Samhain, ancient pagans believed that on the night of October 31st the boundaries between the dead and the living were blurred. They believed that the dead could return to life on Earth, ravaging crops and spreading disease. In an effort to protect their homes and livelihoods, these people dressed up in masks and costumes created to make them look more like the evil spirits they so feared, believing that doing so would please the spirits and cause them to leave their belongings untouched. During the festival, the people lit large bonfires in honor of the dead.  These fires attracted insects, which in turn attracted bats to the area.  Many people today believe this is how bats came to be associated with Halloween. 

During the Middle Ages, Christian missionaries working on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church began spreading the word of Christianity to the Celts. Many Celts were receptive of the message of the missionaries, yet reluctant to let go of their beloved traditions.  In an effort to win converts to Christianity, Pope Gregory IV declared November 1 as “All Souls’ Day” and October 31 as “All Hallow’s Eve”. These days were meant to honor the Christian saints and pray for the souls passing between life and afterlife. The Celts were allowed to continue their Samhain traditions, with one difference.  The spirits they were attempting to appease were now known as demon spirits from Hell, and the rituals were meant to cast them out so that souls could peacefully enter Heaven.

The Roman Catholic religion believed that in order to enter Heaven, the soul must be prayed for after death to receive forgiveness for the sins present at the time of death. On All Hallow’s Eve, people frequently went door to door, begging for “soul cakes”. If the person residing in the home gave the beggar a soul cake, the beggar agreed to say a prayer for a soul who had once lived in the home to enter Heaven. These soul cakes were made of short bread and resembled a doughnut. 

While evidence shows that this practice wasn’t seen in America, it’s easy to see the roots of modern day Trick-or-Treating. The act of begging for soul cakes was likely blended with the Celtic tradition of leaving food and drink outside the home to appease wandering spirits to create the Trick-or-Treat tradition that we know today.

• http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/civilization/cc0070.html
• http://www.loc.gov/folklife/halloween.html
• http://www.halloweenhistory.org/
• http://www.albany.edu/~dp1252/isp523/halloween.html

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