What is Halloween?
In its current form, Halloween in the United States is a day when we can all indulge in the spookier, scarier aspects of life while consuming copious amounts of candy. It’s a lot of fun, slightly eerie, and not at all somber. The holiday, however, was historically of a religious nature and held great cultural significance for the people who observed it.
When is Halloween?
Halloween is always observed on October 31 in America. Canada is one of the nations that shares the same day as us when it comes to Halloween. Not everyone, though, is as obsessed with Halloween as Americans are. Halloween isn’t typically observed at all in England. The Protestant Reformation was responsible for that. Instead, the UK observes Guy Fawkes Day, a completely unrelated holiday that centers on the execution of a notorious traitor and includes bonfires, burning effigies, and fireworks, around this time (on November 5, to be exact). The Day of the Dead, or Da de los Muertos, is observed in Mexico. It occurs between October 31 and November 2, but it has a very different vibe from Halloween. It’s true that people dress up as bright skeletons and celebrate in the streets, but the goal is to honor the deceased and welcome their spirits back to the earth rather than to be afraid of them. People also decorate their ancestors’ graves with flowers and food to show them that they aren’t forgotten on this day.
What are the ancient origins of Halloween?
Halloween derives its date and many of its customs from ancient Gaelic and Celtic rituals that have been practiced for at least 2,000 years. Samhain, a Gaelic festival, was customarily celebrated on November 1 to signal the beginning of winter and the end of the harvest season. According to Brian Sterling-Vete, PhD, a historian, Halloween expert, and author of Paranormal Investigation: The Black Book of Scientific Ghost Hunting and How to Investigate Paranormal Phenomena, the festivities always started the evening before, on October 31, roughly halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice. In order to honor the harvest and get ready for “the dark half of the year,” the Celts held a three-day pagan religious festival around October 31. Looking at Halloween’s name can also provide us with information about its earliest beginnings. According to Sterling-Vete, the term “Halloween” is a contraction of the Scottish phrase “All Hallows’ Eve,” which merely denoted the evening prior to All Saints’ Day. The first instances of it being used in this manner are documented as early as 1555 AD. Early Christianity gave rise to All Saints’ Day. Pope Gregory III changed All Martyrs’ Day from May 13 to November 1 and made it All Saints’ Day in the eighth century. The Catholic Church later added All Souls’ Day (which emphasizes praying for the deceased) on November 2 in the year 1000 A.D. The previous evening became known as All Hallows’ Eve and then Halloween.
How has Halloween changed throughout history?
The ancients thought that on this day, the boundaries between the physical and spiritual worlds were blurred, allowing ghosts from the afterlife to visit the living and monsters to infiltrate homes. The goal of those celebrating was to fend off as much evil as they could. To ward off monsters, witches, and evil fairies, they performed special rites. They told stories about the underworld and mythical heroes. And they disguised themselves so they wouldn’t be taken hostage or eaten by actual monsters by dressing up as monsters to fend off evil. As Christianity grew in acceptance, some of the Catholic holidays—which coincide with Halloween—were added, fusing the religious and shamanic customs. Why? to aid in the conversion to Catholicism from paganism. And it succeeded. All Souls’ Day adopted many of Samhain’s festivities, such as bonfires, parades, and costumes, though nowadays most people wore saintly, angelic, or devilish attire. Beginning to sound a bit familar?
Why do we still celebrate Halloween?
Why has Halloween persisted when most people aren’t afraid of being gobbled up by monsters and don’t feel the need to celebrate the harvest? Due to the Puritans’ strict religious beliefs, Halloween was difficult to promote in early Colonial America, according to Sterling-Vete. The holiday persisted in popularity among nonreligious groups, though, and as more European immigrants mixed with Native Americans, traditions continued to develop. Halloween celebrations merged with autumnal festivals and included spooky tales, tricks, singing, dancing, and public events. But Halloween didn’t really take off in popularity in the United States until the second half of the 19th century. Why? Irish immigrants who were fleeing the Potato Famine brought their Halloween beliefs and customs with them.