The mystery behind Halloween

October 30, 2012

Oct. 30, 2012        Scott Bruce

Just what are the origins of Halloween? Some say it’s derived from the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Samhain (SAH-win). Others say it ‘s more closely connected to the night before All Saints’ Day celebrated by Catholics since the 7th century on Nov. 1.

According to Scott Bruce, associate professor of history at CU-Boulder, the truth can be found in all of the above.

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The mystery behind Halloween

Oct. 30, 2012         Scott Bruce

Just what are the origins of Halloween? Some say it’s derived from the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Samhain (SAH-win). Others say it ‘s more closely connected to the night before All Saints’ Day celebrated by Catholics since the 7th century on Nov. 1.

According to Scott Bruce, associate professor of history at CU-Boulder, the truth can be found in all of the above.

CUT 1  “Our modern holiday, Halloween, is most commonly associated with ancient Pagan rituals practiced by the Celts 2000 years ago in the Roman period. (:10) The name Halloween itself speaks to the Christian origin of our modern holiday. Halloween comes from All-hallows Eve and all hallows refers to the Feast of All Saints, a Christian feast day that falls on November first.” (:23)

The Celtic festival was held in late fall to mark the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, a time associated with darkness and death.

CUT 2 “We have to remember that as the seasons changed, and as the harvest time came and animals were slaughtered and people got ready for the winter and the day light receded and night encroached upon them, this had a far greater effect on the pre-modern psyche than it does to ours. (:17) We live in a time when we control light. For them that time of the year was much more loaded. The darkness weighed upon them.” (:24)

In medieval times it was believed that ghosts and other spirits were present in people’s lives and even more so after the Catholic church proclaimed Nov. 2 as All Souls’ Day to honor the dead. 

CUT 3 “In the medieval imagination, much more so than the modern imagination, the dead were present in the lives of people and at no time more than that time of the year when the days began to get shorter. (:12) Ghosts figure very prominently in stories told by the monks - ghosts of dead people who were suffering who came back and said please pray on my behalf. So there’s the sense then that in late October and early November, the dead are afoot, the dead around and your obligation towards the dead is much more acute than any other time of the year.” (:29)

This might also be when the tradition of trick or treating began, says Bruce. He says in the Middle Ages, especially in northern Europe, poor people at the time of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day would go from house to house and expect to receive an offering of food.

CUT 4 “This was called ‘souling.’ And the piece of food that they received was usually a little wafer with a cross on it that was called a soul cake. In popular tradition the giving of the soul cake to a poor individual was an act of alms giving, it was good for the soul of the giver, but a soul cake consumed represented a soul being released from purgatory.” (:21) Now some historians, it tenuous, but some historians like to see the origin of trick or treating as this very act of moving from residence to residence and obtaining something, “ (:28)

And Bruce says that some historians think the lighting of Jack-O-Lanterns can also be traced to the Middle Ages.

CUT 5  “Now there were no pumpkins in Europe in the Middle Ages but allegedly those people who went souling, who went door to door, had to carry with them some kind of light. Legend has it that these people carried around hollowed out gourds with candles inside to light their way as make shift lanterns, as it were. And this may be the origin of Jack-O-Lanterns.” (:21)

While Bruce could not find a precedent for dressing up in costumes some historians think people in Celtic times believed that if they dressed up in ghoulish costumes they would scare the spirits away.

Bruce says modern day Halloween began in the 1920s and has become a very popular day. It is second only to Christmas in holiday revenue bringing in over $6 billion every year.

-CU-

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