Trick or treaters with their little pumpkin buckets or brown bags soliciting candy, tales of a headless horseman stalking the innocent in the chilly air of darkness.
Horror movies that bring to life the ghouls and goblins that rest dormant in our psyches have all different meanings for each of us on the night we call Halloween.
But to countless others, it has meant many different things over the last several thousand years.
The Real History of Halloween
It appears that the holiday originated umpteen centuries ago as a holiday of a different sort by the Celts who called it Samhain or their new year on October 31 as part of their belief, came the notion that the dead could walk the earth on that day stirring up mischief with their free pass to leave the realm of the dead and walk among the living.
Not to mention as well, that their presence made it easier for the Druid priests to predict the future. Perhaps a few secrets from the other side made it a little easier to know what’s coming just around the corner.
The Activities to Die For
As Samhain festivities progressed, a big bonfire would be built and sacrifices were made to the dead, while the locals would dress up in animal skins and try to tell their own fortunes. The skins would go on to become early costumes which were destined to become one of Halloween’s most enduring traditions.
Only for them, without the specialty shops and Walmarts in which to pick the most frightening skin. Their purpose was probably intended to either to calm the spirits or to blend in with them, as to not incur their wrath.
In A.D. 43 the Roman war machine felt like dancing with the dead too and so after rolling through Britain, conquering a large population of the Celtic people.
The Romans, always the master conquerors, blended two of their own holidays with the Celtic Samhain to make the transition to Roman rule more seamless.
After paganism lost its luster and the Romans found Christianity, the holiday would find a new direction where they could bend its meaning into a holiday fit for a prospering religion.
Like their pagan predecessors, the Christians incorporated their own holidays into the Samhain tradition. November 1 became All-hallow’s, a day to celebrate the saints and martyrs and October 31st became All-hallow’s Even (“Even” being short for “evening,” but providing the “n” in “Halloween”).
Halloween in a New Country
Through the course of time with different people putting their specific twangs and dialects towards and meanings, all-hallow’s even became Halloween.
By the time America rolled on to the world scene, the Halloween holiday had become a well-established holiday and as with all good holidays. Everyone adds a little of their own personality to the tradition. But it didn’t happen right away. Puritans in New England suppressed the superstitious holiday and fun became a dirty word.
But hanging witches did seem to catch on in a big way. In the South, down in the land of cotton (candy) where old times there were not forgotten, the Puritans could just look away, look away and look away some more because religious piety was a bit less important down there and so Halloween continued on American soil and was celebrated in much the same way as in Europe.
As the melting pot of America became a big kettle of witch’s brew stew with the great migration of immigration in the late 1800s, new life was given to the holiday and no amount of piety was going to keep sugar-loving citizens from their date with the dead…be them spirits Christian or pagan.
The holiday prospered and developed yet another personality. Through the years, the old meanings of Halloween slipped away and were replaced with a more wholesome community feel where trick-or-treating, horror films, costume parties, creepy home and yard decorations and of course the occasional Halloween prank became the holiday that defines its meaning we all know today.
As for the tradition of pumpkins and jack- o’- lanterns, a legend of old also appears to be at its root.
According to an Irish myth, a man named Stingy Jack once had a drink with the devil and when he didn’t want to pay for it, convinced the devil to turn into a coin.
However, Stingy Jack lived up to his name and pocketed the coin next to a cross, keeping the devil locked in a monetary state until he struck a deal with Jack to leave him alone and not claim his soul for Hell upon his death.
When Jack did die, Heaven rejected him and–true to his word–so did the Devil. But giving the devil his due, he proclaimed as punishment for Stingy Jack’s trickery, that Jack be out to wander the earth forever with a single coal in a hollowed-out turnip to light his way.
To Irish children, he was Jack of the Lantern. But Jack-o’-lanterns were not a part of Halloween celebrations in Britain; it would take a new country to cement that tradition.
However making vegetable lanterns can be traced back to the British Isles, where carving turnips, beets, and potatoes had been a fall tradition for many centuries. Pumpkins became a favorite in America because they were bigger and easier to carve.
The first mention of a Jack-o’- lantern being part of a Halloween celebration comes from a Canadian newspaper, which in 1866, wrote: “The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe’en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city.
They had their maskings and their merry-makings and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle.”
And so the ages have spoken leaving each new generation a bit of its darker side in which to ponder. A new tale to be told of a trick or possibly a treat in the darkness of night with all its ghosts and goblins of the past.