Halloween Origins: Why We Celebrate

‘Tis the season for ghostly gallivanting and tricks or treats. Our culture celebrates corpses by dressing as the dead. Have you ever wondered why? Read here about where Halloween traditions come from and what they mean for our candy-craving kiddies.

Pagan Roots

As we all know from Hocus Pocus, Halloween comes from ancient tradition of All Hallows’ Eve, the one night a year when the dead can rise and walk among us. The actual holiday 2,000 years ago was called Samhain, a Celtic gathering where people wore costumes and lit bonfires to scare off spirits. From eighth century Europe, we got All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Hallows’ Eve the night before.

The end of October marks the beginning of harvest season and the beginning of cold nights and frosty mornings. The Celts believed this change of seasons brought troublesome spirits as well. When Pope Gregory III dedicated November 1 to saints and martyrs, the intention was to abolish the pagan traditions of this time of year, but the result was a hybrid of Catholic observances and pagan rituals. The church attempted to include the prevailing pagan influence by altering the holiday to include All Souls’ Day on November 2nd, where people were encouraged to dress up as angels and saints and devils and gather around bonfires.

Trick-or-Treating began when poor families in Europe would visit the houses of wealthier families in order to receive little cakes called soulcakes in exchange for prayers for the dead. American colonists used the holiday to go door to door asking for money and food. If their requests were not honored with a treat, the beggar might be tempted to play a trick on the homeowner.

Dressing Like the Dead

For years, many people believed that All Hallows’ Eve was sacrilegious. They argued that the gruesome and frightening traditions of dressing as demons and burning fires in graveyards to ward off ghosts invited wicked and sinful acts and opened the door to trickster sprits. In the 1800s parents were discouraged from letting their children dress as ghouls or ghosts or anything of the like. Although this discord still exists today, it is less common and no longer prohibited by the Catholic church in particular.

Nowadays, our fascination with dressing as the dead stems from those ancient traditions of costuming, but there’s also a bit of fun in being scary and shocking the one night a year that it’s acceptable. When we stop to think about how many costumes are actually tributes to dead people—besides the zombies and ghosts, many people dress like Dolly Parton or Elvis or another deceased celebrity. The holiday has always been about remembering, celebrating, and honoring the dead. Whether to ward off evil spirits or communicate with the beyond in another way, our attachment with those who have passed on is palpable on this night more than any other.

We hope you have a haunted Halloween and a safe night this year!

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