Halloween has become the second largest commercial holiday. Americans spend an estimated $6.9 billion annually on Halloween. However, many people don’t know the history behind the traditions we celebrate.
Halloween’s origins can be traced back to the Celts, who celebrated their New Year on Nov. 1, which marked the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of the cold winter, a time they often associated with human death.
On the night of Oct. 31, they celebrated the Samhain, believing that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth, causing trouble and damaging crops. To commemorate the spirits, the Celtic priests built huge bonfires while people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the deities. During the celebration, they wore animal heads and skins as costumes and attempted to tell one another’s fortunes.
In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated Nov. 1 All Saints’ Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. By 1000 A.D., the church declared Nov. 2 to be All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead.
The three celebrations, the eve of All Saints’ All Saints’ day and All Souls’ were called Hallowmas.
Today, Halloween traditions include trick-or-treating, wearing costumes, jack O’ lanterns, as well as many others. During the second half of the nineteenth century, America was being flooded with Irish immigrants who were fleeing from the potato famine of 1846.
In England during All Souls’ Day parades, poor citizens would beg for food and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes,” in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives.
Over the years, the tradition changes in theory, families could prevent tricks from being played on them by providing neighborhood children with small treats.
Borrowing from English and Irish traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go door to door asking for food or money, a practice we now know as “trick-or-treat.”
It is believed that on Halloween, ghosts came back to the earthly world.
People feared that if they left their house, they would encounter and be recognized by the ghosts. To avoid being recognized, people would wear masks so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow roaming spirits.
The story of jack o’lanterns comes from a myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him and convinced the Devil to turn into a coin so they didn’t have to pay for their drink.
Once the Devil did, he put the coin in his pocket along side a cross so the Devil could not return to his true form.
Jack eventually freed the Devil after making him promise that he would not bother Jack for a year and if he died in that time, the Devil could not claim his soul.
The next year, Jack tricked the Devil into climbing a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the tree’s bark so the Devil could not come down until he promised Jack that he would not bother him for ten more years.
A few years later, Jack died. As legend goes, God would not allow Jack into heaven. The Devil was upset that Jack tricked him into promising that he would not claim his soul and therefore could not let him in to hell. The Devil sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the Earth ever since.
Another ritual that largely impacts Halloween is Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. People wear wooden skull masks called calacas and perform ritual dances, to honor their deceased relatives.
Wooden skulls are also placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead. Sugar skulls, made with the names of the dead persons on the foreheads, are eaten by a relative or friend.
The skulls symbolize death and rebirth and were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the ritual.
Joli McCarthy is a fourth-year student majoring in English and minoring in journalism. She can be reached at JM625940@wcupa.edu.