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History of Halloween
Most of our current Halloween traditions (trick or treating, dressing in costume, jack o'lanterns) originated over a thousand years ago. Details have changed, but the "roots" are clearly recognizeable.  

Halloween began as a combination of pagan and Christian holidays; Samhain (pronounced sowen) and All Saints' Day. The Catholic Church had a long-standing policy of incorporating non-Christian traditions into its holidays to bring people into the Catholic faith, which included moving the dates of Christian holidays to those of established non-Christian celebrations. Many historians believe, for example, that the church set Christmas on December 25th so that it would correspond with pagan winter solstice festivals. Originally, Christians observed All Saints' Day on May 13. But in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1st. Officially, the Church chose this date to dedicate a church honoring the saints. But many historians believe it was moved to correspond with Samhain and other pagan fall festivals.

The Church began to incorporate Samhain traditions into All Saint's Day activities. Recognizing saints (lost loved ones) felt familiar to the Celts, which helped bring them into Christianity - but posed problems for the church, as many supernatural Samhain traditions didn't fit into Christian mythology.

Despite that unease, many supernatural ideas remained in All Saints' Day Eve celebrations, creating an unusual combination of Christian and pagan traditions. At the end of the 10th century, the church tried to influence these traditions by establishing All Souls' Day, to recognize all Christian dead.

All Souls' Day
All Souls' Day, observed on November 2nd, is celebrated with masses and festivities on behalf of Christians who are in purgatory. Souls in purgatory must suffer to be purged of their sins. Friends and family of the departed pray to help loved ones move on into heaven.

This holiday satisfied many Catholics' interest in death and the supernatural. But the idea of wandering spirits persisted, as did the festive atmosphere of Samhain. Realizing that they were unable to completely rid the celebrations of supernatural ideas, the church began to portray the spirits as evil forces associated with the devil. This is where many "evil" Halloween ideas (evil witches, demons) were promoted.

All Souls' Day lives on today, particularly in Mexico, where All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day are collectively observed as "Los Dias de los Muertos" (The Days of the Dead). First and foremost, the Days of the Dead is a time when families fondly remember the deceased. But it is also a time marked by festivities, including spectacular parades of skeletons and ghouls.

In medieval times, a popular All Souls' Day custom was for children to go "souling." They would go door-to-door begging for "soul cakes," simple bread desserts with a currant topping. For every cake collected, the child had to say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave the cake. These prayers would help the relatives find their way out of purgatory and into heaven. The children even sang a soul cake song along the lines of the modern "Trick-or-treat, trick-or-treat, give me something good to eat." One version of the song went:

A soul cake!
A soul cake!
Have mercy on all Christian souls, for
A soul cake!

There is also some evidence of trick-or-treat type activities in the original Celtic tradition. Historians say the Celts would dress up in ghoulish outfits and parade out of town to lead the wandering spirits away. Additionally, Celtic children would walk door to door to collect firewood for a giant communal bonfire. Once the bonfire was burning, all the other fires in the village would be put out. Villagers would then relight every fire with an ember taken from the Samhain bonfire, as a symbol of the people's connection to one another. They carried these embers in hollowed-out turnips, creating a lantern resembling today's jack-o-lantern.

But the direct predecessor of jack-o-lanterns dates from 18th century Ireland, where ancient Celtic traditions remained a significant part of the national culture. A popular character in Irish folk tales was Stingy Jack, a disreputable miser who, on several occasions, avoided damnation by tricking the devil (often on All Hallows' Eve).

When Jack died, he was turned away from Heaven, due to his life of sin. But the Devil had agreed not to take Jack either. He was cursed to travel forever as a spirit in limbo. As Jack left the gates of Hell, the Devil threw him a hot ember to light the way in the dark. Jack placed the ember in a hollowed-out turnip, and wandered off into the world. According to the Irish legend, you might see Jack's spirit on All Hallows' Eve, still carrying his turnip lantern through the darkness.

Traditional jack-o-lanterns, hollowed-out turnips with embers or candles inside, became a popular Halloween decoration in Ireland and Scotland a few hundred years ago. Folk tradition held that they would keep Stingy Jack and other spirits away, and they also served as representations of the souls of the dead. Irish families who emigrated to America brought the tradition with them, but replaced the turnips with the more plentiful pumpkins. As it turns out, pumpkins were easier to carve than turnips. People began to cut frightening faces and other elaborate designs into their jack-o-lanterns.

For children, dressing up and trick-or-treating door to door is still the main event. Most households in the United States and Canada participate, and those who don't run the risk of petty vandalism. Many adults dress up themselves, to go out with their children or to attend costume parties and contests. Other Halloween activities fill the whole month of October. These traditions preserve Samhain's spirit of revelry in the face of frightening thoughts of death and the supernatural. Americans have added scary movies, haunted houses, ghost stories and Ouija boards to the celebration. Greeting cards and festive decorations are also a big part of Halloween.

Much of the Samhain celebration had to do with honoring Celtic gods, and there's evidence that the Celts would dress as these deities as part of the festival. They may have actually gone door to door to collect food to offer to the gods. The Celts believed in fairies and other mischievous creatures, and the notion of Halloween trickery may have come from their reported activities on Samhain.

Although Halloween comes in part from Christian tradition, many Christian groups malign the holiday because of its pagan elements. Halloween figures, such as witches and ghouls, carry a negative connotation to some Christians, and they do not want to expose their children to these images. Some groups are also disturbed by the origins of the holiday, as it is a common belief that the Samhain festival was a celebration of a devil-like god of the dead called Samhain. Most evidence suggests that this is not actually the case (the main documentation for such a god was apparently produced by the Catholic church hundreds of years ago as a means of converting people away from Druidism.)

Christian groups are also disturbed by rumors that modern day Wiccans (modern day witches) and Druids observe Halloween as an occasion to worship evil. Many Wiccans feel that they are misrepresented by Christian spokesmen and the news media. They want to separate their religion from the popular notion of witches as evil figures. Modern witchcraft is based on ancient Wiccan and Druid beliefs that had nothing to do with Satan or other figures from Judeo-Christian theology. Wicca is based on a connection to nature and the universe, not to dark forces or evil spells as the stereotypical idea of a witch suggests.

Despite some negative publicity, many aspects of Halloween are important to children. Dressing up can give a shy child a boost of self-confidence, and trick-or-treating may create a healthy feeling of community. And adults who love Halloween want to celebrate these traditions with their children.

Kids look forward to Halloween because they get to inhabit a character, whether it be a frightening figure or an idolized superhero. Adults enjoy dressing up for similar reasons, and this is why the masquerade plays a part in so many festivals from different cultures. Putting on a mask lets people drop their inhibitions and step outside of themselves for an evening. People in costumes often say and do things they probably wouldn't say or do in their everyday lives. It's very satisfying to step into another character for a while, even (or especially) for a grown-up.

Why do we enjoy dressing up as scary figures?
This seems to be a universal human trait, with death-related festivals and costume parades in many cultures. We are acutely aware of our own mortality, and of death in general. Human cultures are obsessed with death because we cannot understand it, yet it looms over everything we do. One way to feel more comfortable is to make light of it. This brings the frightening ideas  into the open, where we can face them in a festive atmosphere rather than contemplating mortality on our own.

Why do we enjoy being scared?
In addition to working through uneasiness about death and supernatural mysteries, people like to feel frightened for purely biological reasons. When you watch a scary movie or ride a roller coaster, your brain triggers a fear response. Your body releases adrenaline, giving you a "hormone rush."

By dressing up as things we fear, we take some measure of control over them. This can be particularly effective with children. They usually don't fear mortality as much as they do sinister figures like monsters and ghosts. Once they've dressed as a monster, they remove some of the monster's mystery, making it less ominous.

Halloween serves a valuable function for many children and adults. Halloween traditions have been passed down and embraced by so many generations.because they fill our basic need to address the mysteries that frighten us, and even celebrate them.

The origins and true meaning of Halloween are mostly forgotten. It has become a day of fantasy, of role play; a chance to dress up and "become" someone else for a day. Wearing a scary costume can create a feeling of power, or - at least - less timidity. Many of the original costume ideas (dieties, the dead, evil spirits) have been replaced with dress-up clothes for adults. French maids, nurses, schoolgirls and bunny costumes have become standard fare, and new takes on old ideas (sexy witches, pixies and fairies) have been incorporated. Straight-laced women may dress up in sexy costumes, daring the world to see them in a different light. When Halloween falls mid-week, there may be several parties to attend. Woe to the celebrant who does nnot wear a different costume to each party. And most adults no longer settle for cheap costumes; they want quality and authenticity. With deluxe costumes for sale at about the same cost as a rental, Halloween costume ideas today very seldom include thin material and a flimsy plastic mask.

Whatever your preference, Halloween costumes offer a chance to pretend and to have fun. Whether or not your religion labels original Halloween traditions as "the devil's holiday," if you accept Halloween simply as a day to celebrate, you can throw a party of your own!

Oil "The Turnip Lantern" by William Henry Hunt, 1838.