BLOG

Halloween

By Betzaira Ruiz

Today is Halloween! But did you know Halloween was not always known as a trick or treat night? In fact, what we know of today as Halloween is a mixture of different traditions. When migrants came over to the United States, they brought over their customs and traditions and created a big new one, Halloween!

Samhain

Halloween, also known as All Hallows Eve, has its origins in the ancient Celtic pagan religious festival Samhain. The Celtic people celebrated two types of the gods: The God of Sun and the lord of the dead. Samhain was seen as the lord of the dead, cold, and dark winter. It also means “summer ends” and so the celebration of Samhain marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter and time of year that was often associated with human death. The celebration of Samhain takes place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. This was a mandatory celebration that lasted three days and three nights. People were required to appear before the local kings or chieftains and failure to do so was believed to result in illness or death as punishment from the gods. Fire was a key part of the celebration, with hearth fires in homes being left to burn out while the harvest was gathered. After the harvest was completed, people gathered with Druids, the Celtic priests, who would light a communal fire in the hopes of strengthening the Sun of God’s power.

A man representing the Winter King holds a flaming sword as he takes part in a ceremony celebrating Samhain in Somerset, England, 2017. 

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

During this time, cattle were sacrificed, and people brought flame from the communal fire to their home to relight their hearths. Right at midnight, people would start worshipping Samhain because they believed he was going to rule for the next 6 months. Hence why the weather changes and why it becomes dark and cold. It was also during Samhain that people believed the barrier between worlds was at its weakest. People would leave offerings outside of villages for fairies, also known as the Sidh, so that they would not cause any harm. There was also the belief that ancestors might cross over, so people would dress as animals and monsters to deter the Sidh from kidnapping them. 

Dumb Supper via Atlas Obscura

During the Middles Ages, new traditions began to be associated with Samhain. Turnips were carved into jack-o-lanterns and attached by string to sticks and embedded with coal. The tradition of Dumb Supper was also introduced during this time. During Dumb Supper, ancestors were invited to join in the meal so the family could interact with them. Doors and windows were left open for the dead to come in and eat cakes left for them. In addition, children would play games as entertainment for the dead and adults would update them on the past year’s news. The celebration of Samhain gradually declined with the conquering of the Celts by the Romans. In an attempt to decrease the influence of pagan religions, Pope Gregory established All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Soul’s day on November 2nd. Despite Samhain’s decline, there are still many people who celebrate it today.

Evolution to Halloween

Stingy Jack via Cryptic Chronicles

The evolution of Samhain into our traditional celebration of Halloween occurred during the 19th century with the traditions that Irish immigrants brought to America. October 31st became known as All Hallows Eve, and eventually just Halloween. The tradition of trick-or-treating was derived from ancient Irish/Scottish traditions of mumming. In the nights leading up to Samhain, people would put on costumes and go door-to-door singing songs to the dead and received cakes as payment. Another popular Halloween tradition is that of carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns. This tradition comes from the legend of “Stingy Jack”, who one day trapped the Devil and made him swear to not come after his soul. When Jack passed away, the gates of Heaven were closed on him. He then turned to the Devil and asked him to give his soul rest, but the Devil told Jack he promised to not touch his soul. The Devil gave him a light coal from Hell, so he could go back to earth and look for a place to rest. Accepting the light coal, Jack placed it inside a carved turnip to help him light the way. Ever since, Jack has been wandering around during Halloween with his lantern hoping to find a resting place.

Victorian Costume via Heritage London Foundation

Victorian Era Traditions

Victorian Era Halloween traditions were centered more on community gatherings and grand house parties. Adults and children would make their own costumes, usually dressing up as vampires,

skeletons, witches, devils, etc. People would share stories of the dead, dance, tell each other’s fortunes, and sing. Games played a significant role in these Halloween celebrations. One popular game was the Halloween pudding. For this game five objects, a ring, a coin, a thimble, a button, and a key, were baked into a fruit cake. The oldest person at the party would cut the cake in silence at 9pm and distribute pieces to everyone. The first word that was spoken after this would be prophetic for the year, and the items in the cake each prophesized a different thing. So the person who got the ring would get married that year, the button would meet their love, the coin would be wealthy, the thimble would be an old maid/bachelor, and the key would go on a journey. Another game involved a single woman going into a darkened room with an apple, mirror, and candle. She would peel the apple and her true loves face would appear in the mirror or, if she was going to die that year, a skull would appear. Lastly, another game involved a room that would be filled with a chest of drawers with boxes in them filled with party favors. The room was claimed to be haunted, and young women would enter one by one and try and collect a box from the drawer without screaming.

Celebrating for 2020

Sadly, 2020 has not been the best year for many of us. LA County has already banned trick-or- treating this year for the safety of everyone. Even though thousands of children will not be able to go out and trick-or-treat this year they can still enjoy fun and safe activities at home. On the CDC website there is list of lower risk activities, moderate risk activities, and higher risk activities. Here is a list of lower risk activities from the website.

  • Carving or decorating pumpkins with a member of your house hold inside.
  • Carving or decorating outside, from a safe distance, with neighbors or close friends.
  • Decorating your house, apartment, or living space. 
  • Doing a Halloween Scavenger hunt where children are given lists of Halloween-themed things to look for when they are outside from house to house.
  • Having a virtual Halloween costume contest.
  • Having a Halloween movie night with people you live with.

Even though this year it is different, we can still find a way to make this holiday fun (from a safe distance)! 

References

Pon, Damira. The Origins of Halloween, www.albany.edu/~dp1252/isp523/halloween.html.

Neitz, Jill. “Subtopic: Halloween (History).” Lesson Plan – Halloween (History), 1992,

teacherlink.ed.usu.edu/TLRESOURCES/units/Byrnes-celebrations/halloween.html.

“COVID-19: Holiday Celebrations.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for

Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life

coping/holidays.html.

“Samhain” History, https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/samhain.

“8 Halloween Tales and Traditions” History, https://www.history.com/news/halloween-facts

traditions-legends

“Victorian Era Halloween History. Costumes Parlour Games and Traditions” Victorian Era,

http://victorian-era.org/victorian-era-halloween-costumes.html

“How Trick-or-Treating Became a Halloween Tradition” History,

https://www.history.com/news/halloween-trick-or-treating-origins

“Entity of the Week: Stingy Jack” Cryptic Chronicles, https://crypticchroniclespodcast.com/entity-

of-the-week-stingy-jack/

Laidler, Nicole “4 Frighteningly Fun Facts About Victorian Halloween” Heritage London

Foundation, https://heritagelondonfoundation.ca/2019/10/16/4-frighteningly-fun-facts-

about-victorian-halloween/