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Haunting history behind Halloween

October 27, 2017

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While so many modern holidays have been greatly commercialized – between Thanksgiving and the rush to get done with dinner so you can start checking items off on your Black Friday list, Christmas and the millions of dollars spent every year on presents, and Halloween and the industry that relies on costume sales and the millions spent on candy – they all started with cultural tradition. We all know the tale of Pilgrims and Native Americans joining together to celebrate a successful harvest, and of Jesus being born in a little manger, but what about Halloween?

About 2,000 years ago, Celtics resided in Ireland and had an end-of-summer tradition called “Samhain.” It was believed that on this evening, the world of the living and the dead became blurred, and the dead were able to return to Earth for the night. Celts suspected that the spirits visiting their world granted greater power to their priests, or Druids, and allowed these holy figures the capability of fortune telling. In order for the fortune telling to accurately work, Druids built huge bonfires and sacrificed crops and animals to their deities. Celts then wore costumes made from animal heads and skins as they worshiped the dead and sought out their futures. Kinda creepy, huh? Europe even practiced its own version of trick-or-treating called “souling.” People would go house-to-house asking for food in exchange for prayers for the dead. Tricks included young women thinking themselves able to foretell their husbands by conducting “magic” tricks.

When Romans conquered Celtic territories, Catholic views and ideals quickly combined with Samhain traditions. In order to make the tradition a holy holiday, Pope Gregory III dubbed November 1st All Saints’ Day. This was an evening devoted to honoring saints and martyrs in the Catholic religion. The evening before All Saints Day celebrated the dead, so it became known as “All Hallows Eve,” and was celebrated similarly to Samhain – with bonfires, costumes, and parades. Eventually, this night was named “Halloween.”

So how did these European traditions get all the way to North America? When immigrants came to America, the bulk of travelers taking up residence in New England were Protestants, so Halloween was not a heavily celebrated tradition. Upon the event of the Irish Potato Famine, an immense amount of Irish immigrants fled to America and the Halloween tradition followed. As time went on and European ethnic groups meshed, a more “Americanized” version of Halloween was created. The first major tradition that arose was “play parties” during which harvest was celebrated, stories of the dead were exchanged, and dancing and singing commenced. In the 1800’s, communities began advertising for a more “family-friendly” Halloween, urging parents to rid the holiday of its scary aspects. By the beginning of the 20th century, much of the suspicion and belief in Halloween had dissipated.

While American celebrations have changed over time, who’s to say that Celtic tradition has no truth? Maybe the dead really can rejoin us on Halloween night. Good luck, Monmouth!

Emma Hildebrand
Contributing Writer

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