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History Tidbits: Halloween

by Allison S | Oct 31, 2016
Image courtesy of halloweenerrific

Editor's Note:  Have you checked out The Genealogy Center's monthly E-Zine, Genealogy Gems?  You should!  The content for this post, written by Genealogy Librarian Allison, appeared in the September 30 issue of this year and is the first in a series of articles focusing on holiday customs. 

Halloween’s background is firmly rooted in the Celtic festival of Samhain, a three-day festival to celebrate the end of the light half of the year beginning on the evening of October 31st.  The Celts split the year into two halves, the light half and the dark half. They observed the end of the dark half on May 1st of each year with Beltane, modern May Day. Two other Celtic seasonal festivals, Imbolc and Lughnasadh, marked the start of spring and fall respectively but were considered less important. Samhain and Beltane carried more significance, since the Celts believed the lines between the living and the dead were blurred at those times. 

Samhain celebrated the end of the harvest. Animals were slaughtered for provisions for the coming winter. Celebrants lit huge bonfires as rituals to symbolize the holding back of winter. They would carry embers from the communal bonfire to each cold hearth to relight the home fires. Celebrations would acknowledge the importance of the harvest while encouraging raucous behavior from the young men and free-flowing alcohol. Young women would practice divination, often involving apples, to see whom they would marry.

While Samhain had been around for centuries, it was incorporated into a new holy day by the Catholic Church in 609: “All Saints’ Day,” otherwise known as “All Hallows” or “Hallowmas.” Initially, it was celebrated on May 13th, but by the ninth century it was almost universally celebrated on November 1st. All Saint’s Day began as a commemoration of the martyrs who died for the Church, though later it included all saints, not just martyrs. The following day, November 2nd, was set aside a century later as “All Souls’ Day” to pray for the souls of those in Purgatory. The day before All Saints’ Day was referred to as “All Hallows’ Evening” or “All Hallows’ Eve” (“Hallowe’en” when abbreviated). “Hallowtide” signified all three days together. 

Several factors led to many of the Halloween traditions as we now know them in the United States. As with any holiday, these traditions have roots in historical events. The Black Death, which terrorized Europe for centuries, brought a morbid fascination with skeletons. With death surrounding the culture, the festival that blurred the lines between the living and the dead found a new home for the obsession of skeletons. Witch hunts, in which thousands of men and women were executed over the centuries, brought fear and added to the dark fascination of light versus dark, good versus evil, and thus became a natural fit with Halloween. 

Irish and Scottish immigrants brought Halloween to America, which is why no mention of the holiday exists until immigration increased in the 1840s in the wake of the Potato Famine. The Irish brought their custom of the jack-o’-lantern. In the old country, turnips or beets were hollowed out, and a candle was placed inside, mimicking the flashes of light seen in the peat bogs that appeared mysteriously and created suspicion of the supernatural. The name “jack-o’-lantern” refers to a fable about a man named Jack who was left to wander the earth forever after making a deal with the devil. He is Jack of the Lantern. When the American Irish discovered the large pumpkin, they made it the lantern of choice for Halloween. Corn was also incorporated into Halloween based on the large corn crops in America. 

Another tradition that has roots in the Celtic lore is trick-or-treating. The Celts had two traditions that required people to go door-to-door. The first was “souling.” The poor would go door-to-door, asking for food or money in return for prayers for the dead. Soul cakes became a popular item to give to the poor and leave out for the ghosts. Young adults would also go door-to-door in costumes in a custom called “guising.” They would perform tricks, sing, or tell a story for a sweet treat. 

In the early twentieth century Halloween became fully adopted by the United States. By 1920, communities had a firm enough grasp on the celebration to make it family-friendly and not a night for boys to terrorize the citizens with pranks. Community Halloween parties and parades began. Trick-or-treating received the endorsement and assistance of local government. It became a holiday for children to have fun and get candy. For youth and adults, it became a night to embrace fear and celebration. People have always had a fascination with things they do not know or understand. Death and the blurred lines between life and death will always have an attraction for the living. Halloween has become the holiday in which it is socially acceptable to celebrate them. 

Shared with permission.  Each issue of Genealogy Gems examines a variety of topics related to family history.  To view previous editions or to subscribe, click here.

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