The origin of Halloween

October 30, 2013

Oct. 30, 2013     Scott Bruce

It’s Halloween - a day to wear costumes, carve pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns and go door-to-door trick-or-treating. But just how did these traditions get started? According to Scott Bruce, associate professor of history at CU-Boulder, people have been celebrating Halloween in one form or another since ancient times.

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The origin of Halloween

Oct. 30, 2013     Scott Bruce

It’s Halloween - a day to wear costumes, carve pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns and go door-to-door trick-or-treating. But just how did these traditions get started? According to Scott Bruce, associate professor of history at CU-Boulder, people have been celebrating Halloween in one form or another since ancient times.

CUT 1  “Our modern holiday, Halloween, is most commonly associated with ancient Pagan rituals practiced by the Celts 2,000 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)

But instead of the fun and frolic we see in modern day Halloween festivities, in Celtic times the festivals were far more somber, says Bruce.

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 daylight 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)

And what about ghosts and other goblins? In medieval times it was believed that ghosts and other spirits would return this time of the year seeking help, says Bruce.

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 are 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. According to Bruce, in the Middle Ages, especially in northern Europe, poor people at the time of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, celebrated by Catholics on Nov. 2, 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’s 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, the lighting of carved pumpkins, or jack-o-lanterns, might also be traced to this time period.

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 makeshift 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 wore 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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