Today Halloween is considered by most to be a children’s holiday. Children and families that celebrate Halloween see it as an opportunity to dress up in costumes and go from house to house requesting candy and treats. Some that celebrate Halloween like the horror and spookiness associated with October 31st. While Halloween may be just fun and games to most people today, it did not start out that way.
Halloween is a blend of Celtic practices, Catholic and Roman religious rituals, and European folk traditions. The Celtic/Gaelic holiday of Samhain was normally held on October 31st or November 1st. Samhain is pronounced “sow-en”. The Irish name Samhain is roughly translated “summer’s end”. The Gaels believed that the division between the living world and the world of the dead became thin on Samhain. They believed this because animals and plants were dying. They also believed that during this time the dead were able to reach back through the veil that separates the living and the dead. For some, Halloween has long been thought of as a day when the dead can return to the earth.
Wearing costumes and masks was a part of the festival because the Gaels were attempting to copy and/or placate the dead spirits. They believed their costumes would ward off roaming spirits. The practice of carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns was likely derived from the Gaelic practice of hollowing out turnips and carving faces into them to make lanterns. The Celts felt the ugly faces carved into turnips would frighten away the evil spirits and protect the household on Samhain. Bonfires played an important part in the Gaels’ festivals. There was even a ritual that involved walking between two bonfires and casting the bones of slaughtered livestock into the fire. Witches were thought to be especially powerful at Samhain. Samhain continues to be celebrated as a religious festival by some Neopagans.
The Gaelic festival of Samhain became associated with All Saints’ Day or All Soul’s Day because the two observations occurred at about the same time of the year. Pope Boniface attempted to lead Catholics away from pagan celebrations by declaring November 1st to be All Saints’ Day. This observation has influenced the customs now connected with Halloween. All Soul’s Day, mostly observed by Catholics, involves the belief that the dead that had not yet attained full sanctification and moral perfection may be helped to do so by prayer and by the sacrifice of the Mass. Another English name for this observation is Feast of All Souls. Similar observances are known as the Day of the Dead in other countries and languages. The name Halloween originated around the 16th century. It comes from a Scottish shortening of the term All Hallows-Even.
The practice of trick or treating has several origins. During Samhain the Druids believed the dead could play tricks and cause destruction. People would give the Druids food to appease them when they visited their homes. A European custom called “souling” was practiced on November 2nd, which was All Soul’s Day. The poor would go door to door begging for “soul cakes” and other food. They would promise to say prayers on behalf of the dead relatives of the givers of food. The custom of wearing costumes on Halloween is similar to the Celtic tradition of copying the evil spirits to either pacify them or trick them.