A History Of Halloween

There’s more to this holiday than tricks and treats

Jack 'O Lantern In Cemetery In Spooky Night With Full Moon

The haunted holiday comes around every 31st of October and for kids, it’s a time for costumes and candy. But how about a lesson in what Halloween actually is?

It is widely believed that Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off evil spirits as it was the one day when the undead walked among the living. On the heels of Halloween is All Saints Day, which came about around the eighth century A.D., when Pope Gregory III designated Nov. 1 as a time to honor all saints, incorporating some of the traditions of Samhain. On this day, people attend church services, pray for the dead by visiting cemeteries and lighting candles and then celebrate their lives by eating soul cakes.

All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, has since evolved into a day of activities that include trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, festive costume-themed gatherings, telling scary stories and eating sweet treats. The holiday is also said to have pagan roots, as it marked the end of the pastoral cycle—a time when crops would have been gathered and placed in storage for the long winter ahead. Samhain itself was Christianized as Halloween by the early church, however, some consider it separate from festivals.

To Americans, the symbol of Halloween is a jack-o-lantern. In Ireland and Scotland, it is the turnip that has traditionally been carved. As for the modern imagery associated with Halloween today, many of it is drawn from traditional Christian eschatology, national customs, works of Gothic and horror literature and films. Skull imagery is usually found in memento mori and vanitas compositions while the back walls of churches are adorned with a depiction of the Last Judgment by Michelangelo, complete with a heaven and hell and angels and devils.

Returning to Ireland, the heart of Halloween, we find many myths, tales and legends. Did you know that orange and black, the colors of Halloween, are the colors of death in Celtic legend? October 31 also marked the end of the long days and the drawing in of winter.

In fact, for a place of such history, ritual and ruins, it’s no surprise that the world’s biggest Halloween party is held in Ireland in the city of Derry every year. More than 30,000 people take to the streets, dressed in ghoulish garb from the Otherworld as music and a carnival proceeds through the town.

The custom of Halloween was brought to America by Irish famine emigrants in the 1840s and since then, it has been a day that many look forward to every year.

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Jennifer Fauci
Jennifer Fauci is the former managing editor of Long Island Weekly, Anton Media Group's award-winning special sections and Anton’s local magazines. Her passion for literature, travel and the arts lend to the unique content in her publications. In her time at Anton, she has received first place in the Folio Awards, second place for the NYPA awards and is the recipient of six PCLI awards.

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