October 18, 2021

Are you a Halloween Fanatic? Thank the Irish. (Origins & Traditions of Halloween.)


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As the weather becomes crisper and the leaves become crispy, we slowly move our way into October.

For many, at the end of October is one of the best holidays of the year—Halloween.

Some like the candy and some love the costumes, while others live for the decorations. Halloween allows the kid in us to come out, if only for a brief period—with haunted houses, horror movies, playing pranks, and eating some of the candy we remember getting when we were kids.  Some might consider this the best time of the year.

I’m certainly one of those. I love the costumes, decorations, and candy. I also love where Halloween came from.

The idea of dressing up and going door-to-door for candy wasn’t simply thought up out of thin air. And it certainly didn’t come from the Puritans who moved away from the British Isles seeking a place where they could worship how they wanted, safe from Catholicism.

It comes primarily from the Irish when they started traveling to the United States around 1840, thanks to the potato blight. With them, they brought their old customs, which come from an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain (said like sow-wen or saw-wen).

The Celts believed this night was when the veil between the living and the dead was thinnest, meaning spirits of the dead could cross over to the living world. They also believed the spirits created havoc and damaged crops.

To combat these spirits, the Celts would create a big bonfire, make sacrifices to their deities for protection, dress in costume, and try to tell each other’s fortunes. The dressing in costume was done in the hopes that if they encountered a demon, said demon would leave them alone, thinking they were a demon too.

Then the Romans conquered the Celts and put their own spin on things. The Romans celebrated the Goddess Pomona, who was a goddess of fruits and trees. One of the prominent fruits they brought with them was the apple. This is thought to be where the game of bobbing for apples came from. It helped that when an apple is cut in half, it reveals a star in the center, a symbol of fertility for the Celts.

Bobbing for apples was originally a form of divination. Young, unmarried people would bob for apples and the first one to catch an apple would be the next to marry. Another form of this divination was when people would bob for apples and then cut some of the skin off and throw it on the ground. Whatever letter the skin formed would be the first initial of the person they were to marry.

In 1000 A.D., the Christian church made November 2nd All Souls Day, to honor the dead. They would celebrate this day with big bonfires and costumes but dressed as angels, devils, and saints. It was also called All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas. Thus, the night before was called All Hallows’ Eve.

This is also about the time when revelers would do tricks and performances in exchange for food and drink.

Later, in the middle ages in Europe, peasants would go door-to-door, visiting the wealthiest people and offering to pray for their departed loved ones, in exchange for soul cakes, a small baked good. It was believed that the soul’s happiness depended upon the number of prayers said for them, so the wealthy few would gladly pay in soul cakes to make their loved ones happy in the afterlife.

The practice slowly changed to children donning guises and performing for each household. They would then receive nuts, fruit, or some baked goods.

In the U.S., after the Irish immigrated, many communities accepted some of the old Irish traditions. Eventually, things changed when children started playing pranks and creating havoc wherever they went. Many communities tried to stop the destruction and make it more of a family affair.

Around the 1950s was when most communities had a handle on it. With all the baby boomers, parties were once again more private than community-wide. In an effort to make it more of a community event still, trick-or-treating was essentially revived in its new form. It was thought that if all the kids were busy getting candy, they couldn’t play pranks.

One last tidbit for you—the jack-o-lantern wasn’t always a pumpkin, as the Irish didn’t have pumpkins. They had turnips.

Now you know more about the history and traditions of Halloween. Are any of those surprising to you?

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