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.

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