Seasonal Hollidays: Halloween

Figure 1.--The British Scout magazine said in 1980, "All right, we know that Halloween is 31st October! But when you receive a picture like that of the Cub Scouts of the 1st/2nd South Benfleet having a splendidly creepy time, it seems a bit stupid not to use it. A blood curdling lot, aren't they?".

Halloween is the evening of October 31 which is the day before All Saints Day (November 1). In American Halloween came to be observed by children dressing up in scarry or other costumes and play trick-or-treat. In recent years it has become more popular with young adults. It has also become increasingly popular in countries other than meruca as kids learn that there is candy to be had.


The origins of Halloween are many and varied. It dates back to Celtic and Roman times. Halloween itself began to be observed during Medieval times in association with All Saints Day (November 1). American Halloween has been influenced largely by Irish practices brought to America by the Irish migration resulting from the Potato Famine (1840s).


Halloween, especially in Ireland and America, is in large measure a celebration that traces back to the Celts. The ancient Celtic priests (Druids) celebrated a fire festival called "Samhain". This was widely celebrated in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The Irish called it Samhein or La Samon, the Feast of the Sun. The Scotts called it Hallowe'en. The Welsh called it Nos Galen-gaeof or the Night of the Winter Calends. For the Irish it was to celbrate the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. Faeries were considered to be especially active in the half of the year beginning with Samhein. The day between the light and dark seaon was believed to be a time in which the spirits of the dead could most easily move into the world of the living. Not all of the spirits were believed friedly, so villagers might leave out food to placate the spirits. Some believe that that this was the origin of "trick or treat". Villagers might also dress up in costumes to celebrate . The Celtic Gods or Lord of the Dead were Gwynn ap Nudd (British) and Arawn (Welsh). The Irish Celts did not, however, have a "lord of death". Many Halloween customs are the incluenced by ancient religious beliefs and rituals of the Druid priests as passed down through the Romans and Christians. The Romans conquered the British Celts, but not the irish.


Haloween's origins trace to the Romans holiday of Feralia, a kind of celebration of the dead. This was a holiday intended to give rest and peace to the departed. Celebrants made sacrifices to honor deceased relatibes. The Romans celebrated Feralia February 21 which was the end of the Roman year. There was also the celebration of Pamona. Apple bobbing can be directly traced to pamona.

Medieval Christianity

When Christianity replaced pagan religions, many pagan practices were attacked by the Church. Among them were the often ribald celebrations such as the surviving remnants of Samhein and Pamona. New Christian celebrations more in keeping with the teachings of the Church were introduced. The Church often incorporated aspects of pagan celebrations in the new Church celebrations. The Church found that it was easier to turn pagan beliefs rather than to wipe them out totally. To more effectively convert the Celts, apects of Celtic culture was grafted on to Church celebrations. Pope Boniface IV introduced All Saints' Day to replace Samhein/Feralia (7th century). All Saints Day was at first observed on May 13. Gregory III changed the name to ALL Souls Day (essentially a Christian Samhein) and moved the date to the modern date of November 1. I am not sure why. The Greek Orthodox Church observes All Saints Day on the first Sunday after Pentecost. As the American celebration of Halloween comes primarily from Ireland, it is the calader of the Roman Church that has determined the celebration in the United States. Pope Innocents VIII began a crucade against whitchcraft, in part an attack on Celtic beliefs. Joan of Arc was caught up in this process.

National Celebrations

Halloween or comparable holidays is celebrated in many different countries. Halloween as celebrated in America has Celtic-Irish origins. The American celecration in turn has to an extent spread to Europe, although this varies from country to country. No where is modern Halloween more important than in modern America. There are also celebrations in non-European countries. These celebrations are not historicaly related, but have some of the same elements as Halloween in Europe and Anerica.

Catholic Countries

The first week of November is marked in many countries, especially those with a strong Catholic influence, with festivals concerned with death in a playful but serious way. In Catholic countries we often find some cognate of Halloween associated with All Saints' or All Souls' days.


An Australian reader in 2006 writes, "Halloween is a bit celebrated here. I've heard that people on some strrets in some suburbs so something although only once in 20 years has someone knocked on our door. We will light the pumpkin tonight and be ready."


The care of the dead through prayers and sacrifices were part of a spring festival of purification and regeneration.


Bon festival, dedicated to the spirits of ancestors, for whom special foods are prepared, occurs during the middle of the summer (one of the most important festive periods of the year). Three days in length, it is a time when everyone goes home (reminiscent of the American Thanksgiving).


Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) is celebrated in ways reminiscent of Halloween. Guy Fawkes was accused of attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament on that day in 1605. He was apprehended, hung, drawn, and quartered. On 5 November 1606, the same Parliament declared Novermber 5a day of public thanksgiving. The act of treason was viewed as part of a 'popish' -that is, Roman Catholic- plot against the Protestant government. Because Holloween was associated with the Catholic church calendar, its importance diminished, but many of its traditions shifted to the annual commemoration of the death of Guy Fawkes. Today, for weeks in advance of 5 November, English children prepare effigies of Fawkes, dummies known as Guys. They set them out on street corners and beg passers-by for "a penny for the Guy". The eve of the fifth is know as Mischief Night, when children are free to play pranks on adults, just as 30 October, the night before Halloween, is know as Mischief Night in many areas of the U.S. On the night of 5 November, the Guys are burned in bonfires, just as the ancient Celts burned bonfires on November 1.


There is some trick-or-treating in France. The children say "bon-bon ou baton". Some people think that the whole thing is too American and should be discouraged.


Throughout the Western world, 1 May, like 1 November, is a day of traditional significance. The 30th of April, the eve of May 1, is in areas of Germany, particularly the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht, or the eve of St. Walpurgis Day. Witches are supposed to be especially active this day, as are spirits of the dead and demon creatures from the nether world.

Ireland and Celtic Countries

The ancient Celtic (Irish, Scottish, Welsh) festival called Samhain is considered by many to be a predecessor of our contemporary Halloween. Samhain was the New Year's Day of the Celts, celebrated on 1 November. It was also a day of the dead, a time when it was believed that the souls of those who had died during the year were allowed access to the land of the dead. It was related to the season: by Samhain, the crops should be harvested and animals brought in from the distant fields. Many traditional beliefs and customs associated with Samhain, most notable that night was the time of the wandering dead, the practice of leaving offerings of food and drink to masked and costumed revelers, and the lighting of bonfires, continued to be practiced on 31 October, known as the Eve of All Saints, the Eve of All Hallows, or Hallow Even. It is the glossing of the name Hallow Even that has given us the name Hallow e'en. The spirits of Samhain, once thought to be wild and powerful, were now said to be something worse: evil. The church maintained that the gods and godesses and other spiritual beings of traditional religions were diabolical deceptions, that the spiritual forces that people had experienced were real, but they were manifestations of the Devil, the Prince of Liars, who misled people toward the worship of false idols. Thus, the customs associated with Halloween included representations of ghosts and human skeletons-symbols of the dead- and of the devil and other malevolent, evil creatures, such as witches were said to be.


Mexico and other Latin American countries on the first and second of November celebrate the Days of the Dead---El Dia de los Muertos. This is not really Haloween, but there are enough similarities thart we thought we should mntion ot here. In some regions, the evening of October 31, is the beginning of the Day of the Dead Children, which is followed on November 1 by the Day of the Dead Adults. Skeleton figures-candy (sugar skulls), toys, statues and decorations-are seen everywhere. It is a time for great festivity, with traditional plays and food. It is a time to play with death and decorating family graves, which is preceded by religious services and followed by picnics. The human skeleton or skull is the primary symbol of the day. Unlike the American Halloween, in Mexico people build home altars, adorned with religious icons and special breads and other food for the dead. The Day of the Dead incorporates recognition of death as a concept with rituals that remember the deaths of individuals.

New Zealand

Halloween is not as popular in New Zealand as in other Western countries, especially, the Inited States, and traditionally has not generally been celebrated. In recent years American-style Halloween has elicited some interest. It is not an official holiday, but is not official in America. Even young kids are commonly aware of how Halloween is celebrated in America--especially Trick-or-Treat. And of course they want to get in on the fun. Going house to house for free candy to be passed out appeals to the hear (and taste buds) of every kid. And of course dressing up in costumes is another appeal. Halloween as aesult, is gradually growing in popularity, both in Australia and New Zealand. And of course the goof old capitalist profit motive is kicking in with some retail outlets promoting the holiday, both costume and candy sales. As a result, each year we see more kids dressing up for trick-or-treat. This goes hand and hand with the costumes. Once you have a costume, you want to show it off, and what better way than trick-or-treat when oddles of candy are to be had. I don't know if Halloween parties have begun to become popular or id there are school activities. The British Guy Fauukes Day occues about the same time, but we do not know to what extent this has been celebrated in New Zealand. Perhaps readers will know more.

Figure 2.--These American boys are preparing their jack-o-latterns in a photograph taken in the 1910s. Notice the long over the knee stockings that the boys are wearing with their knickers.

United States

Halloween has become one of the most important and widely celebrated festivals on the contemporary American calendar, and it is not even officially a holiday. No day off is given for Halloween, no federal decree is proclaimed establishing it as a national holiday. People simply do it. Halloween has a number of mostly European influences, none more important than the Irish who began emigrating to America in large numbers with their Celtic Halloween tradituons. In recent years, American Halloween has begun to spread to other countries. The Halloween that the Irish brought to America was a raukus, largely adult festival. Americands significantly transforned it. And it became a largely children's holiday by the turn of the 20th century. Kids of course loved dressing up and raking in candy for trick or treat. What more could a kid ask for than a fun day and coming home with a huge bag full of candy. In recent years Halloween has become increasingly popular with adults.


Unlike many other holidays, the children didn't dress up for Halloween, there is of course a good deal of dressing down. Children used to make their costumes using much imagination. Now costumes are generally massed produced and brought in discount stores. Trick or treat had declined in popularity because of saftey concerns. Fundamentalists groups have asailed this once rather innocent child's celebration as satantic. (These are of course the same people who see the Teletubbies as subverting innocent minds.) In recent years Halloween has become mpre popular as an adult holiday. The popularity of different kinds of costumes have varied overtime. I don't know how authoritative this is, but in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis there was an interesting depiction of Haloween. Trick or treat does not appear to have been as established. The big event was building a bon fire, rather like Guy Faukes Day. At least partially based on Sally Benson's short stories about a family in 1903, the children are shown dressing as the opposite gender for Halloween: Girls as men and boys as women--costumed in their parents' old clothes.


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Created: March 4, 2000
Last updated: 1:32 AM 7/29/2011