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Halloween is a secular holiday combining vestiges of traditional harvest festival celebrations with customs more specific to the occasion such as costume wearing, trick-or-treating, pranksterism, and decorations based on imagery of death and the supernatural. The observance takes place on October 31.
Though it was regarded up until the last few decades of the 20th century as primarily a children's holiday, in more recent years common Halloween activities such as mask wearing, costume parties, themed decorations, and even trick-or-treating have grown quite popular with adults as well, making Halloween an all-ages celebration.
What does the name 'Halloween' mean?
The name Halloween (originally spelled Hallowe'en) is a contraction of All Hallows Even, meaning the day before All Hallows Day (better known as All Saints Day), a Catholic holiday commemorating Christian saints and martyrs observed since the early Middle Ages on November 1.
How and when did Halloween originate?
The best available evidence indicates that Halloween originated in the early Middle Ages as a Catholic vigil observed on the eve of All Saints Day, November 1.
It has become commonplace to trace its roots even further back in time to a pagan festival of ancient Ireland known as Samhain (pronounced sow'-en or sow'-een), about which little is actually known. The prehistoric observance marked the end of summer and the onset of winter, and is said to have been celebrated with feasting, bonfires, sacrificial offerings, and paying homage to the dead.
Despite some thematic similarities, there's scant evidence of any real continuity of tradition linking the Medieval observance of Halloween to Samhain, however. Some modern historians, notably Ronald Hutton (The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 1996) and Steve Roud (The English Year, 2008, and A Dictionary of English Folklore, 2005), flatly reject the commonly held notion that November 1 was designated All Saints Day by the Church to "Christianize" the pagan festival. Citing a lack of historical evidence, Steve Roud dismisses the Samhain theory of origin altogether.
"Certainly the festival of Samhain, meaning Summer's End, was by far the most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Irish calendar, and there was a sense that this was the time of year when the physical and supernatural worlds were closest and magical things could happen," Roud notes, "but however strong the evidence in Ireland, in Wales it was May 1 and New Year which took precedence, in Scotland there is hardly any mention of it until much later, and in Anglo-Saxon England even less."
Earliest Halloween customs
The earliest documented customs attributable to Halloween proper grew out of the tandem observances of All Saints Day (November 1), a day of prayer for saints and martyrs of the Church, and All Souls Day (November 2), a day of prayer for the souls of all the dead. Among the practices associated with Halloween during the Medieval period were the lighting of bonfires, evidently to symbolize the plight of souls lost in purgatory, and souling, which consisted of going door-to-door offering prayers for the dead in exchange for "soul cakes" and other treats. Mumming (or "guising"), a custom originally associated with Christmas consisting of parading in costume, chanting rhymes, and play-acting, was a somewhat later addition to Halloween.
Again, however, despite the obvious similarities between old and new, it's an overstatement to say these Medieval customs "survived" to the present day, or even that they "evolved" into modern Halloween practices such as trick-or-treating. There's no direct historical evidence of such a continuity. By the time Irish immigrants brought the holiday to North America in the mid-1800s, mumming and souling were all but forgotten in their home country, where the known Halloween customs of the time consisted of praying, communal feasting, and playing divination games such as bobbing for apples.
The secular, commercialized holiday we know today would be barely recognizable to Halloween celebrants of even just a century ago.
• Why Do We Carve Pumpkins on Halloween?
THE NAME "jack-o'-lantern" is British and dates from the 17th century, when it literally meant "man with a lantern" (a night watchman). It was also a nickname for the natural phenomenon known as ignis fatuus (fool's fire) or "will o' the wisp," the mysterious, flickering lights sometimes seen at night over wetlands and associated in folklore with fairies and ghosts playing pranks on travelers.
Over time "jack-o'-lantern" became the popular term for a homemade object also known as a "turnip lantern," defined by Thomas Darlington in his 1887 volume The Folk-Speech of South Cheshire as "a lantern made by scooping out the inside of a turnip, carving the shell into a rude representation of the human face, and placing a lighted candle inside it." In some parts of Great Britain carrying turnip lanterns was considered a form of pranksterism. Darlington writes: "It is a common device of mischievous lads for frightening belated wayfarers on the road." For Catholic children it was customary to carry jack-o'-lanterns door-to-door to represent the souls of the dead while begging for soul cakes on Hallowmas (All Saints Day, Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2). They were also carried by parading celebrants on the night of Guy Fawkes Day (Nov. 5).
According to legend, the jack-o'-lantern took its name from a reprobate Irishman known as Stingy Jack who tricked the Devil into promising he wouldn't have to go to hell for his sins. When Jack died he found out he had been barred from heaven, so he journeyed to the gates of hell to demand his due. Wouldn't you know it, the Devil kept his promise and doomed Jack to wander the earth for all eternity with only an ember of hellfire of to light his way. Thenceforth he was known as Jack O'Lantern.
It wasn't until Irish immigrants brought the custom of carving jack-o'-lanterns to North America that the more commonly available pumpkin came to be used for that purpose, and not until the mid-to-late 19th century that pumpkin carving became a Halloween staple across the United States.
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• Why Do We Wear Costumes and Go Trick-or-Treating?
OBVIOUS SIMILARITIES suggest at least a notional link between the present-day Halloween custom of wearing costumes and going trick-or-treating and the Medieval practices of "mumming" and "going a-souling" on the eves of All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2). Mumming took the form of wearing costumes, chanting, singing, play-acting, and general mischief making, while souling entailed going door to door and offering prayers for the dead in exchange for treats, particularly "soul cakes."
Another likely antecedent was the British custom, dating from the 1600s, of youths wearing masks and carrying effigies (including jack-o'lanterns carved from turnips) while begging for pennies on Bonfire Night (also known as Guy Fawkes Night), the November 5 commemoration of the so-called Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605. (While not an official holiday, Bonfire Night is still celebrated in parts of England.)
Interestingly enough, however, by the mid-1800s when Irish immigrants brought their version of Halloween to North America, the customs of mumming and souling were all but forgotten in much of the U.K.; Americans, for the most part, had no idea who Guy Fawkes was, let alone why anyone should go begging for "pennies for the Guy;" and, despite Halloween being permanently ensconced as an American holiday by the turn of the 20th century, there's no mention in published sources of "trick-or-treating" or anything resembling it before the 1930s.
One does find mention — many mentions, in fact — of unrestrained pranksterism and vandalism on Halloween night dating from the late 1800s on, thus one current theory holds that trick-or-treating was an early-20th-century contrivance meant to provide an orderly alternative to juvenile mischief (essentially bribing the would-be tricksters with treats).
Following Anglo-Irish tradition, Halloween parties featuring fortune-telling games (such as bobbing for apples) and other supernatural trappings were common practice by the turn of the century, and these morphed into costume parties with children dressing as witches, ghosts, and goblins. Perhaps the simplest explanation for the invention of the trick-or-treat ritual is that someone had the inspiration to take the costume party door-to-door.
Whatever the precise details of its origin (which we may never know), by the 1940s trick-or-treating had become a Halloween fixture throughout the United States, and remains so to this day.
Halloween costume c. 1910
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• Why Do We Bob for Apples on Halloween?
SOME SAY the custom of bobbing for apples dates all the way back to pre-Christian Ireland and the festival of Samhain, though there's little documentary evidence to support this. Apple bobbing also been popularly associated with Pomona, the ancient Roman goddess of fruits, trees, and gardens in whose honor a festival was supposedly held each year on November first. But that, too, stands on shaky historical ground, apparently, as some question whether such a festival ever actually existed.
We can say with more certainty that the game of apple bobbing goes back at least a few hundred years, that it originated in the British Isles (Ireland and Scotland in particular), and that it originally had something to do with fortune telling. British author W. H. Davenport Adams, who attributed belief in the prognosticative power of apples to "old Celtic fairy lore," described the game as follows in his 1902 book, Curiosities of Superstition:
[The apples] are thrown into a tub of water, and you endeavour to catch one in your mouth as they bob round and round in provoking fashion. When you have caught one, you peel it carefully, and pass the long strip of peel thrice, sunwise, round your head; after which you throw it over your shoulder, and it falls to the ground in the shape of the initial letter of your true love's name.
Other Halloween divination games traditionally played in various parts of Great Britain included "snap apple" — similar to bobbing for apples except the fruit is hung from the ceiling on strings — and naming nutshells after prospective love interests and placing them near a fire to see which would burn steadily — indicating true love — and which would crack or pop and fly off the hearth — revealing a passing fancy. Accordingly, Halloween used to be known as "Snap-Apple Night" or "Nutcrack Night" in places where these customs were observed.
Bobbing for apples, c. 1910
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