The Halloween fever is already high and raging as the world gears up with costumes, candies and lanterns as the chill seeps in. Amidst the festivities, you’re probably wondering about the origin of Halloween and how the festival has fared through ages and regions to be transformed into this global event that it is today.
Halloween this year is all the more special because of the full Hunter Moon that will adorn the night sky on October 31, the second one in the month of October and therefore called the blue moon (nope, it isn’t blue). The last time this was reported to have happened in all time zones was in the year 1944. Now let’s read on some popular theories about the origin of Halloween and its customs.
The origin of Halloween in pagan celebrations
The history of harvest festivals, often characterised by bonfires, games and feasts is at least 2,000 years old. One of the four seasonal Gaelic festivals, Samhain (pronounced sow-in, from Old Irish) commemorates the beginning of winter and was noted for its cleansing rituals. This transition period between the seasons is considered to be liminal, when the boundaries between our world of the living and the Otherworld become blurry, thus attaching a supernatural aspect to the event. The celebration, also seen as the Celtic New Year, was believed to be blessed by the visiting souls of the dead and the pagan deities’ spirits.
Although adapted and merged by the Church into Allhallowtide some time in the 9th century, Samhain has received renewed attention from Neo Pagans and Wiccans who still observe the festival. While there are known to be other analogous celebrations in Celtic lands, the origin of Halloween is most commonly traced to Samhain.
All Saints’ Day
Hallowmas or All Saints’ Day is observed by the Roman Catholic Church on November 1 to honour the saints. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates it on the Sunday following Pentecost. The Byzantine Emperor Leo VI is known to have popularized the Feast of all Saints (originally credited to Pope Gregory III, celebrated on October 27) in the 9th century after the death of his wife, expanding the tradition of commemorating all martyrs to all saints.
Together with All Souls’ Day (November 2) and All Saints’ Eve (October 31), the celebration is known as Allhallowtide. Both Samhain and All Souls’ Day have some common customs like leaving out food for the visiting spirits and praying for protection. Souling is a popular tradition wherein soul cakes and other eatables are offered to the needy who often go door-to-door on the day. Some believe that the origin of Halloween is rooted in Christianity.
Trick or Treat
While souling and sharing and giving out food to the poor and to the wandering spirits can be traced back both to the Celts and to much later European traditions, similar customs have also been absorbed in various occasions meant for the commemoration of the dead. Masquerades also have pagan origins and were incorporated into Samhain (hence, giving it the name Mischief Night) in Scotland and Ireland some 500 years ago. Guising was used to emulate the spirits and ask for food in return for blessings. Traditionally male mummers were also known to go around performing folk plays.
Over time, this was taken up by children and transformed into a fun activity who started circling the neighbourhoods for candy, clad in costumes. The component of ‘tricking’ evolved from people who fooled about, getting away with mischief on the day in the name of the spirits touring the earthly realm.
Another possible origin of Halloween trick-or-treating in its modern form could be the Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night. Celebrated on November 5, this included children lighting bonfires and wearing costumes and effigies.
Bonfires have had a ritualistic significance of purification and community gathering that predates harvest festivities. On the night of Samhain, these fires accompanied the revelry and feast to ward off bad luck. Customs of sacrifice, throwing stones into the fire, jumping across it and using it to relight the family hearths are linked to the druids, promoting the bonding of the communities and securing stocks and protection for the dreaded winter. Bonfires also played a role in divination rituals, often surrounded by stones around which people ran bearing torches or dancing.
Costume parties and parades
Wearing costumes has been associated with Samain as done either to imitate the spirits (aos sí) or to hide from them. Masked revelry or guising became a popular Scottish tradition in the 19th century where costume-clad people roamed the streets carrying carved turnip lanterns. The custom arrived in America reportedly in the early 1900s. In recent years, Halloween parties have become entrenched in mainstream culture and the demand for Halloween costumes for pets are also on the rise. Overall, Halloween is a colossal commercial hit, second only to the December festive season in the U.S.
Halloween parades (the most renowned of which is the colorful NYC Village Halloween Parade) have become a booming tourist attraction, allowing the party-goers a day (or night) of mystery and anonymity to have uninhibited fun.
According to Irish folklore, conniving Jack struck a deal with the Devil in return for allowing the Prince of Darkness to come down a tree the man had trapped him in by carving a cross on it. Even after his death, the Devil kept his promise of not taking his soul and thus, Jack was shunned, doomed to wander eternally holding the burning piece of coal the Devil had given him which he placed inside a turnip.
The Irish began fashioning similar lanterns out of turnip, beet and potatoes which were slowly replaced by pumpkins for ease of carving as the tradition spread around England and America. Jack-o’-lantern carving is now a popular activity of the spooky season, providing a fun opportunity for a display of creativity and competitions and an essential Halloween decor item.
Day of the dead
Día de Muertos is a Mexican celebration coinciding with Allhallowtide. Respecting death as part of the natural passage of life, Mexicans believe in enjoying the time in unity with the spirits of the deceased, leaving them gifts and food at their graves. November 1 is spent remembering the lost children while the following day is reserved for commemorating the souls of older people.
Colorful altars or ofrendas bearing marigolds, toys, alcohol, sugar skulls (calaveras) and traditional dishes are a common sight. Cemeteries are lit up and Mexicans participate in masqueraded parades and dancing.
Now that you know about the possible origin of Halloween, it must be noted that commemorating the dead in different parts of the world is marked by protection and purity rituals, feasts and other customs. In Hinduism, pitru paksha is a fifteen-day observance that falls in the month of September. Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, shares similarities with Samhain and Halloween as it is believed that spiteful and evil spirits visit the earth on the new moon night to ward off which, diyas and lamps are lit.
Held on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month in the Chinese calendar, the Ghost Festival is celebrated by Buddhists with month-long ritualistic observances such as preparing food, burning joss sticks and creating papier-mache goods to offer to the spirits of the deceased on this day when the realms of Heaven and Hell lift their veil. Lotus-shaped lanterns are lit to guide the souls through the passage of the afterlife.