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A History of Halloween

Celebrated each year on October 31, Halloween as it is known in America, commonly involves dressing up in costumes and going "trick or treating" around one's neighborhood for candy, telling spine-tingling ghost stories, carving Jack-o-lanterns, and decorating one's house in spooky decor. In addition, many modern-day pagans, Wiccans and Satanists have adopted Halloween as a holiday to celebrate their beliefs in black magic, mysticism and the occult. Whether one views the holiday as innocuous or evil, its history reveals roots in religious traditions, pagan sacrifices and folklore. The word "Halloween" itself is a contraction of the phrase "All Hallows Eve," and originally denoted the evening before November 1, which was "All Hallows Day" (or "All Saints Day" or "All Souls Day"). In old English, the word 'Hallow' meant "to sanctify," and Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherians used to observe All Hallows Day to honor all Saints in heaven, known or unknown. In fact, the holiday was considered to be one of the most solemn and significant observances of the Church year, and all Catholics were obliged to attend Mass. The holiday was originally created by Pope Boniface IV to replace a pagan festival called "Feralia." Participants of Feralia made sacrifices in honor of the dead, offered up prayers for them, and made oblations to them. The festival was celebrated on February 21, the end of the Roman year. The Romans also celebrated a holiday called "Pomona Day," which was named after their goddess of fruits and vegetables. When the Romans invaded Britain in the first century, the two festivals melded together such that a celebration of the fall harvest also coincided with the day of the dead. In the 7th century, however, the Pope introduced All Saints' Day to replace the pagan festival, to be observed on May 13. In 835 A.D., the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Gregory III designated November 1st as All Hallows Day. Bonfires, parades and people in costume as saints, angels and devils marked this celebration, which was a blending of Christian and Roman practices.

The American version of Halloween owes its origins to an ancient, pre-Christian Druid festival, "Samhain" (pronounced sow-en). In the 5th century B.C., summer officially ended on October 31, and the Celtic Druids in Scotland, Wales and Ireland celebrated their New Year on that date. In Ireland, the festival was known as "La Samon," the Feast of the Sun, while in Scotland, it was called as "Hallowe'en." In Welsh, it was known as "Nos Galen-gaeaf," the Night of the Winter Calends. Regardless of its name, the holiday was a feast of the dead, signalizing the close of summer harvest and the initiation of the winter season. The festival, orchestrated by Druid priests, was a series of ceremonies clearly aimed at invoking and tapping into supernatural inspiration and power. Through their casting of spells, induced dream states and sacrificial offerings at sacred hilltops with blazing bonfires, the Druids made Samhain an earnest time of search for contact with their gods and goddesses, a vital part of pagan thought and practice. The Druids used divination to determine the weather for the coming year, the crop expectations, and even who in the community would marry whom and in what order. Cakes were baked during this time as offerings to the dead. It was imagined that faeries were particularly active during this season, and that the disembodied spirits of those who had died the preceding year would come back in search of living bodies to possess for the next year. The Celtic Druids believed that when the seasons changed from fall to winter, the barrier between the spirit world and the living world was at its thinnest, and that all laws of space and time were suspended on October 31, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living. Because the living did not want to be possessed by the souls of the departed, villagers extinguished fires in their homes, to make them cold and undesirable. They would paint the skulls of dead relatives so they could rejoin the family during October "dumb" feasts. They would then dress up in ghoulish costumes and noisily parade around the neighborhood, in the belief that they would frighten away spirits looking for bodies to possess.

The Samhain festival became known as a celebration of fire. Some historical accounts relate that the Druids burned at the stake people who were thought to have already been possessed, as a lesson to the spirits. In addition, the Druids also slaughtered weak animals as sacrifices. In an effort to purge oneself of internal weakness, it was a common ritual to write down one's shortcomings on a piece of parchment, and toss it into the fire, and dancing around the flames in celebration. The fire was known as "Hallowe'en bleeze," and custom once included digging a circular trench around the fire to symbolise the sun. In addition, fire was believed to ward off the spirits of the dead. Some Celtic traditions held the spirits could be warded off by carving a grotesque face into a gourd or root vegetable (the Scottish used turnips) and setting a candle inside it.

The Romans adopted the Celtic practices as their own. But in the first century A.D., they abandoned any practice of sacrificing humans in favor of burning effigies. As belief in spirit possession waned, the practice of dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches took on a more ceremonial role. Later, after the Catholic Church denounced the Samhein festival, it was believed that the spirits of Samhain were diabolical deceptions. The Church acknowledged that spiritual forces that people had experienced were real, but they were manifestations of the Devil, the Prince of Liars, who misled people toward the worship of false idols. This led to the establishment of a Middle Age custom of celebrating "All Hallows" with parades of parishioners dressed as saints, angels, church icons, as well as ghosts and human skeletons--symbols of the dead--and of the devil and other malevolent, evil creatures, such as witches, around the churchyard and then through town. The custom of Halloween was brought to America in the 1840s by Irish immigrants fleeing their country's potato famine. At that time, Irish immigrants enjoyed playing pranks on their neighbors in New England by tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence gates. In the late 19th century, Halloween parties involved play acting, costumes and whimsical fortune telling. Victorians revived the ancient practice of bobbing for apples and Edwardian postcards featured classic Halloween images of witches, cats, bats and owls.

The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called "souling." On All Souls Day, early Christians walked from village to village begging for "soul cakes," made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul's passage to heaven. Similarly, an old Irish peasant practice called for going door to door to collect money, breadcakes, cheese, eggs, butter, nuts, apples, etc., in preparation for the festival of St. Columb Kill.

The Jack-o-lantern custom is generally derived from Irish folklore. According to the tale, a man named Jack, notorious as a drunkard and shyster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree's trunk, trapping the devil up in the tree. Jack then made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would let him down the tree. After Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked Satan. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness of eternity. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer. In remembrance of the folk tale, the Irish originally used turnips as their "Jack's lanterns." When the Irish immigrated to America, they discovered that pumpkins were far more plentiful, so the "Jack-O-Lantern" in America was a hollowed-out pumpkin, lit with an ember.