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Monica Valentinelli

Do you Know the History of Halloween?

Posted on October 5, 2008 by Monica Valentinelli

Like the origin of the number 666 in our pop culture, Halloween conjures claims that it’s a satanic, violent holiday. Horror movies like the Halloween series with Michael Myers have fictionalized this view for decades. Recently, Rob Zombie offered his version of the Halloween remake review which happened almost thirty years after the Halloween movie debuted in 1978. With many myths and urban legends circulating about the safety of Halloween night — you may remember your parents warning you about the razor blade in the apple — is it any wonder that in some circles Halloween has gotten a bad rap?

Probably the most telling feature of this holiday, though, is the fact that it isn’t celebrated world-wide. According to Wikipedia, Halloween is primarily celebrated in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand and (more recently) Japan. Sometimes Halloween, which is also known as All Hallows Eve, Samhain, Hallows End and Noche de la Brujas (Night of the Witches), is recognized in Sweden, Australian and many Latin American countries. So what is the history of Halloween, a strange holiday replete with costumes, Jack O’ Lanterns and candy?

Halloween’s origins trace back to those who celebrated Samhain, a word that means “November” in many Gaelic languages and signals the end of the harvest, or the end of the Gaelic year. (1) Celebrated by the Celts, the holiday signaled the end of summer and the harvest. It’s hard for us to imagine what life must have been like back then, but to the Celts? Their calendar year was split into two — a period of light and a period of darkness. This “dark half” began with Samhain, and was rife with many symbols we continue to associate with our modern version of Halloween — apples, bonfires and even honoring the dead (for those that celebrate a more religious take on the holiday).

The word “Halloween” does not have roots in Celtic traditions, however — but Catholic. The original name of the holiday was “All Hallow’s Eve” and was used to describe the “eve” (or evening) before All Saints’ Day which occurs on November 1st. The word “hallow” means “to sanctify” (to purify or set aside for purification 2) in Old English. So, breaking down the meaning of the word “Halloween” further, it might be translated to mean “evening before all are blessed.”

Even though the two holidays are celebrated seperately today, at one point both All Hallow’s Eve and were recognized on the same day. (3) Also known as All Souls’ Day or Hallowmas, and this holiday was first celebrated between 609 A.D. and 610 A.D.(4) Shortened from “All Hallow’s Eve” over time, Halloween has shifted and changed over the centuries into the holiday we think of today.

History of Halloween in the United States

Although Halloween is celebrated in several countries, the night of October 31st continues to be popular in the United States. According to the History Channel’s feature on how Halloween came to America, European immigrants brought their unique customs over to the colonies with them, and like all other traditions transported to a new culture, Halloween was slow to take hold. It wasn’t until fairly recently, less than a hundred years or so, that Halloween started to take shape in the American culture.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was flooded with new immigrants. These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally. Taking from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition. Young women believed that, on Halloween, they could divine the name or appearance of their future husband by doing tricks with yarn, apple parings, or mirrors. –SOURCE: History Channel’s History of Halloween

However you regard Halloween, it is clear that the holiday has continued to evolve beyond those early days of our ancestors. Whether you choose to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve from a more religious perspective or not, there are several traditions rooted in many, different cultures that you can explore. From Jack O’ Lanterns to Trick-or-Treating, Flames Rising hopes that you and your family enjoy a fun and safe Halloween.

For more about the history of Halloween, we recommend:

Here are some books about the history of Halloween:

Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne
The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween by Jean Markale
Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night by Nicholas Rogers

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One Response to “Do you Know the History of Halloween?”

  1. JLaSala Jeff LaSala says:

    And I JUST finished watching the History Channel’s Haunted History of Halloween from Netflix. Good timing.

    Reply

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