Straddling the line between life and death, winter and fall, paucity and plenty, Halloween is a time of superstition and celebration. Also commonly referred to as All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween can be traced back about 2000 years to a Celtic pre-Christian festival held on Nov. 1 known as Samhain, which means “the end of summer” and pronounced as “sah-win” in the Gaelic language, according to the Etymological Dictionaries of Indo-European.
History of Halloween
Since ancient records are fragmentary and sparse, the exact nature of the Samhain festival is not really fully understood. However, it is believed to have been an annual communal meeting held at the final stretch of the harvest year, and it was a time to gather enough resources for the winter season and bring back the animals back from pastures. Samhain festival is also said to have been a very special time of communing with dead people, according to historians.
The Celts believed that it was a day when dead spirits would cross over into the world of the living. Historians also suggest that such moments of transition during the year were always highly respected and thought to be supernatural and special.
However, some historians argue that there is no enough evidence to prove that Samhain totally devoted to the ancestor worship or to the dead.
Ancient sagas suggest that Samhain was actually the time during when tribal people paid their tribute to conquerors and also the time when the ancient mounds [sidh] could reveal the magnificent and remarkable kingdoms of the underworld gods. Some history experts also point out that Samhain festival was less about evil or death than about preparing for the dormancy as the summers turned into winters.
Though there is no any direct connection between Samhain festival and Halloween that has been proven. However, some scholars point out that since All Hallows’ Mass (or All Saints’ Day celebrated Nov. 1) and the Samhain festival are very close together on the modern calendar, they may have greatly influenced each other and hence later joined into the day we now call Halloween today.
As time went by, Halloween slowly transformed into a community-based, secular event that was characterized by child-friendly activities, such as trick or treating. In some countries around the world, as the nights get colder and the days grow shorter, people continue to welcome the winter season with sweet treats, costumes and gatherings.
Today, Halloween has become more about candy and costumes and less about literal ghouls and ghosts. The Celts held the festival to mark the culmination of the harvest season and to usher in the winter season, and they also believed that the transition between the two seasons was also an important bridge that connected them to the world of the dead people. Over the millennia Halloween evolved from a somber “pagan ritual” to a holiday of costumes, parades, merriment, and sweet treats for adults and children.
Trick-or-treating and Costumes
The Halloween tradition of trick-or-treating and dressing may be traced back to the practice of “guising” and “mumming,” in which people would go door-to-door and disguise themselves, asking for food. Back then, costumes were often woven out of straw, and were usually disguises, and at times people wore costumes in order to perform skits or play.
The practice can also be connected to the medieval “souling”custom in Ireland and Britain, when poor and needy people would knock on the doors of others on Hallowmas (November 1), borrowing food in exchange for condolences and prayers for the dead people.
Trick-or-treating did not start in the US until during World War II, however, kids in America were known to go out during Thanksgiving and beg for food — a custom commonly known as “Thanksgiving begging.”
Mass solicitation practices and rituals were pretty common, and were usually associated with winter holidays during the evolution of Halloween. While one tradition did not necessarily cause the occurrence of the other, they were quite “parallel and similar”.
Through the ages, various unexplained supernatural entities — including witches and fairies — have come to be associated with this annual festival. More than 100 years ago in Ireland, Halloween was even said to be an event when dead spirits could return to old haunting grounds that they once belonged to.
Dressing up as witches and ghosts has become fashionable, and the holiday is more commercialized (sale of mass-manufactured costume) and more widespread today. The choice of disguises for adults and kids has also greatly expanded beyond mere monsters to incorporate everything from politicians to princess to superheroes.