In the United States and Canada, every October brings an avalanche of carved pumpkins, dancing skeletons, smiling ghosts, and witches riding on brooms. Halloween certainly stands out from the rest of the holidays we observe throughout the year: It's full of frightening ghost stories, pranks, elaborate costumes and bizarre games. On Halloween, we all revel in being scared.
Halloween also stands out because of its unique mix of secular and religious elements. In recent years, the holiday has stirred up a lot of controversy because it offends some Christian groups, which in turn upsets many modern-day Wiccans and Druids.
If you've ever wondered where all those peculiar Halloween practices come from, or you can't figure out why Halloween is such a hot topic with a lot of people, then this article will get you ready for the next October 31. We'll look at both the Celtic and Christian origins of Halloween, examine all the favorite Halloween traditions and sort out a little bit of the Halloween controversy.
The next time you're carving a pumpkin or handing out candy to little Draculas and Darth Vaders, you'll actually know where these practices come from.
Meaning of Halloween
One obvious question about Halloween is, "What does the word itself mean?" The name is actually a shortened version of "All Hallows' Even," the eve of All Hallows' Day. "Hallow" is an Old English word for "holy person," and All Hallows' Day is simply another name for All Saints' Day, the day Catholics commemorate all the saints. At some point, people began referring to All Hallows' Even as "Hallowe'en" and then simply "Halloween."
Following the Jewish tradition, Christians observe many holy days from sundown on one day until sundown on the following day. This is where we get the practice of celebrating Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, etc. The direct predecessor of modern-day Halloween is the festivity that began All Saints' Day, which started at sundown on October 31.
While it takes its name from All Saints' Day, modern Halloween is actually a combination of several different traditions. In fact, a lot of the things we do on Halloween predate Christianity entirely. In the following sections, we'll look at the chief traditions that feed into today's Halloween and see how they got all tangled up together in one holiday.
Celtic Roots: Samhain
Most of the traditions of Halloween date back to Samhain (sow-en), the ancient Celtic New Year. Samhain, which translates to "end of summer," occurred around the end of October, when the weather started to get cold. At its heart, Samhain was an observance of all the important things that were happening during this change of seasons.
The Celtic people, who came together as a society around 800 B.C., kept sheep and cattle. When the weather got colder, the shepherds brought their animals down from the hills to closer pastures. This shift changed daily life significantly. In the winter months, everybody stayed inside or close to home, working on handcrafts and spending time together. Samhain also marked the final harvest of the year, an event commemorated by festivals in many cultures.
Celtic tradition held that turning points, times when things change from one state to another, had magical properties. Samhain marked the biggest turning point of the year -- a change in the weather as well as a shift in everybody's lives. The Celts believed this magical time opened up a sort of connection to the dead. Those souls that had passed through the ultimate turning point, the shift from life to death. They believed the world of the living was closest to the world of the dead at the time of Samhain, and that the spirits of the dead traveled again among the living. A lot of the activities of the Samhain festival were connected to this belief, and many of those practices evolved into modern-day Halloween traditions.
The Celts recorded their history orally -- they did not write anything down, but passed on beliefs and stories from person to person. For this reason, historians often disagree about the Celts' practices and beliefs. So nobody is really sure what the Samhain festival was like, but there are a number of accounts that provide interesting explanations of modern-day Halloween practices, as we'll see in later sections.
Christian Roots: All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day
Christians have been honoring their virtuous dead from the earliest days of the religion. In traditional Roman Catholicism, exceedingly virtuous men and women may be canonized as saints in the afterlife. Since they are endowed with holiness, saints are close to God, and may perform miracles on earth. Roman Catholics, and some other Christians, honor saints and ask them for guidance in daily life. (See How does someone become a saint? to learn more about sainthood.)
Catholics commemorate many saints on their own "saints day," often the anniversary of their death. But with thousands of canonized saints, only a small percentage are recognized regularly. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV officially established All Saints' Day in order to honor all the saints at one time. History records such a sacred day before Boniface's time, but it wasn't widely observed.
Originally, Christians observed All Saints' Day on May 13. But in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved it to November 1. Officially, the Church chose this new date to mark the papal dedication of a church honoring the saints. But many historians believe the Church really moved the observance to correspond with Samhain and other pagan fall festivals.
The Catholic Church had a long-standing policy of incorporating non-Christian traditions into its holidays in order to bring people into the Catholic faith. This included moving the dates of Christian holidays to those of established non-Christian occasions. Many historians believe, for example, that the church set Christmas on December 25 so that it would correspond with pagan winter solstice festivals.
In any case, when All Saints' Day moved to November 1, the church did begin to incorporate Samhain traditions into the holy day's activities. This helped bring descendants of the ancient Celts into Christianity, but it posed some problems for the church. Much of the Samhain traditions centered on the supernatural and spirit world, ideas that don't have much of a place in Christianity. Recognizing saints, who were by definition deceased, covered a lot of the same ground, but the converts were still fascinated by the idea of their familiar dead returning to the world of the living.
Despite some unease in the church, many supernatural ideas persisted in All Saints' Day Eve celebrations, making the occasion a remarkable combination of Christian and pagan beliefs. At the end of the 10th century, the church tried to give these traditions a little more direction by establishing All Souls' Day, an occasion to recognize all Christian dead.
All Souls' Day, observed on November 2, is celebrated with Masses and festivities in honor of the dead. The living pray on behalf of Christians who are in purgatory, the state in the afterlife where souls are purified before proceeding to heaven. Souls in purgatory, who are members of the church just like living Christians, must suffer so that they can be purged of their sins. Through prayer and good works, living members of the church may help their departed friends and family.
After its introduction, this holiday did sate many Catholics' interest in death and the supernatural. But the unchristian idea of wandering spirits persisted in some areas, as did the festivity atmosphere of Samhain. Conceding that they could not completely get rid of the supernatural elements of the celebrations, the Catholic Church began characterizing the spirits as evil forces associated with the devil. This is where we get a lot of the more disturbing Halloween imagery, such as evil witches and demons.
All Souls' Day lives on today, particularly in Mexico, where All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day are collectively observed as "Los Dias de los Muertos" (The Days of the Dead). First and foremost, the Days of the Dead is a time when families fondly remember the deceased. But it is also a time marked by festivities, including spectacular parades of skeletons and ghouls. In one notable tradition, revelers lead a mock funeral procession with a live person inside a coffin.
This masquerade is closely connected to the celebration of Halloween, as are other elements of All Souls' Day. In the next section, we'll see how one early All Souls' Day ritual may have led to modern trick-or-treating.
In medieval times, one popular All Souls' Day practice was to make "soul cakes," simple bread desserts with a currant topping. In a custom called "souling," children would go door-to-door begging for the cakes, much like modern trick-or-treaters. For every cake a child collected, he or she would have to say a prayer for the dead relatives of the person who gave the cake. These prayers would help the relatives find their way out of purgatory and into heaven. The children even sang a soul cake song along the lines of the modern "Trick-or-treat, trick-or-treat, give me something good to eat." One version of the song went:
A soul cake! A soul cake! Have mercy on all Christian souls, for A soul cake!
There is also some evidence of trick-or-treat type activities in the original Celtic tradition. Historians say the Celts would dress up in ghoulish outfits and parade out of town to lead the wandering spirits away. Additionally, Celtic children would walk door to door to collect firewood for a giant communal bonfire. Once the bonfire was burning, the revelers would extinguish all the other fires in the village. They would then relight every fire with a flame taken from the Samhain bonfire, as a symbol of the people's connection to one another.
A lot of the Samhain celebration had to do with honoring Celtic gods, and there's evidence that the Celts would dress as these deities as part of the festival. They may have actually gone door to door to collect food to offer to the gods. It is fairly clear that Samhain involved an offering of food to spirits. There may have been animal sacrifices, and some historians say the Celts even sacrificed people, but the evidence is not conclusive.
The Celts believed in fairies and other mischievous creatures, and the notion of Halloween trickery may have come from their reported activities on Samhain. There's also good reason to suppose that the Celtic New Year's Eve was something like our own New Year's Eve -- a time when people let go of their inhibitions, drank heavily and got into trouble. The trickery tradition may simply come from this spirit of revelry. We'll see how the Celts also influenced the Halloween tradition of carving pumpkins next.
As part of the Samhain celebration, Celts would bring home an ember from the communal bonfire at the end of the night. They carried these embers in hollowed-out turnips, creating a lantern resembling the modern day jack-o'-lantern.
But the direct predecessor of jack-o'-lanterns dates from 18th-century Ireland, where ancient Celtic traditions remained a significant part of the national culture. A very popular character in Irish folk tales was Stingy Jack, a disreputable miser who, on several occasions, avoided damnation by tricking the devil (often on All Hallows' Eve). In one story, he convinced Satan to climb up a tree for some apples and then cut crosses all around the trunk so the devil couldn't climb down. The devil promised to leave Jack alone forever, if he would only let him out of the tree.
When Jack eventually died, he was turned away from Heaven, due to his life of sin. But, in keeping with their agreement, the Devil wouldn't take Jack either. He was cursed to travel forever as a spirit in limbo. As Jack left the gates of Hell, the Devil threw him a hot ember to light the way in the dark. Jack placed the ember in a hollowed-out turnip and wandered off into the world. According to the Irish legend, you might see Jack's spirit on All Hallows' Eve, still carrying his turnip lantern through the darkness.
Traditional jack-o'-lanterns, hollowed-out turnips with embers or candles inside, became a very popular Halloween decoration in Ireland and Scotland a few hundred years ago. Folk tradition held that they would ward off Stingy Jack and other spirits on Halloween, and they also served as representations of the souls of the dead. Irish families who emigrated to America brought the tradition with them, but they replaced the turnips with the more plentiful pumpkins. As it turns out, pumpkins were easier to carve than turnips. People began to cut frightening faces and other elaborate designs into their jack-o'-lanterns.
In the next section, we'll look at another popular Halloween food tradition: bobbing for apples.
Bobbing for Apples
All Hallows' Eve has long been a time to look into the future, and traditional festivities included several divination rituals. These come mostly from folk traditions from the British Isles, and many have their roots in the ancient Samhain festivities.
A lot of marriage divinations had to do with apples. In Celtic tradition, the fruit was associated with female deities who controlled the ways of love. This may have something to do with the inner structure of apples. When you slice an apple in two, you can see a pentagram shape (a star with five points) on each half, around the core. The pentagram was an important shape for the ancient Celtics, and many other cultures. Among other things, it was a Goddess symbol.
One of the most popular divinations was for young unmarried people to try to bite into an apple floating in water or hanging from a string. This is something like the bouquet toss that still plays a part in wedding receptions -- the first person to bite into the apple would be the next one to marry.
In another tradition, a young woman would light a candle and peel an apple in front of a mirror. While she was peeling the apple, her future husband would supposedly appear in place of her reflection. Peeling an apple was also a way to predict your life expectancy. If you could cut off one long peel, you would live to an old age. If you only cut a small piece of peel, you would die young.
Apples are still a big part of Halloween celebrations. In addition to apple-bobbing, modern Halloween revelers drink apple cider, make candy apples and hand out apples to trick-or-treaters.
In the next section, we'll look at some of the other modern traditions of Halloween, most of which evolved in the United States.
American Halloween Traditions
Since the 1800s, when Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their Halloween festivities to North America, the holiday has evolved considerably. The celebration's connection with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day has mostly fallen by the wayside, and a number of new secular traditions have developed.
For children, dressing up and trick-or-treating door-to-door is still the main event. Most households in the United States and Canada participate, and those who don't run the risk of petty vandalism. Many adults dress up themselves, to go out with their children or to attend costume parties and contests.
Halloween continues to be extremely popular with kids of all ages; 85 to 90 percent of U.S. children go trick-or-treating or engage in other Halloween festivities every year, and many adults also join in on the fun. In a 2000 poll, the National Retail Federation found that 65 percent of U.S. adults between 18 and 34 attended Halloween costume parties or other celebrations.
Other Halloween activities fill the whole month of October. These traditions preserve Samhain's spirit of revelry in the face of frightening thoughts of death and the supernatural. Americans have added scary movies, community haunted houses, ghost stories and Ouija boards to the celebration. Greeting cards and festive decorations are also a big part of Halloween. The holiday is second only to Christmas in total revenue dollars for retailers.
In the United States, Halloween lags just behind New Year's Eve and the Super Bowl in total number of parties, and it's second only to Christmas in total consumer dollars spent. According to the National Retail Federation, U.S. consumers spent an average of $44 per household in 2002 on Halloween candy, costumes and decorations. Families with young children spent an average of $62. The 2002 holiday brought in about $6.9 billion in sales in the United States.
Another common Halloween custom is collecting money for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), in lieu of or in addition to candy. This started in 1950 in Philadelphia, when a Sunday school class had the idea of collecting money for needy children when trick-or-treating. They sent the money they made, about $17, to UNICEF, which was inspired by the idea and started a trick-or-treat program in 1955. Interested churches, schools and parents can order special orange-and-black collection boxes, along with materials explaining the UNICEF program. To learn how you can participate, check out the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF Web page.
Although Halloween comes in part from Christian tradition, many Christian groups want nothing to do with the holiday because of its pagan elements. Prominent Halloween figures, such as witches and ghouls, carry an uncomfortable satanic connotation to some Christians, and they do not want to expose their children to these images. Some groups are also disturbed by the origins of the holiday, as it is a common belief that the Samhain festival was a celebration of a devil-like god of the dead called Samhain. Most evidence suggests that this is not actually the case -- the main documentation for such a god comes from material apparently produced by the Catholic Church hundreds of years ago, as a means of converting people away from Druidism.
Christian groups are also disturbed by rumors that modern day Wiccans and Druids observe Halloween as an occasion to worship Satan or other evil forces. The established organizations of these groups completely disavow all knowledge of such practices, though they do say that Halloween is an important day of the year in their religion. Every year, there are some reports of satanic rituals and even animal sacrifices, but most of these stories prove to be fabrications. Any actual sacrifices are the practices of individuals and smaller extremist groups, operating outside any larger organization.
Many Wiccans, modern-day witches, get upset around Halloween because they feel that they are misrepresented by a few Christian spokesmen and the news media. They want to separate their religion from the popular notion of witches as evil figures in league with the devil. They say that modern witchcraft is based on ancient Wiccan and Druid beliefs that had nothing to do with Satan or other figures from Judeo-Christian theology. Wiccans say that their religion is based on a connection to nature and the universe, not to dark forces and evil spells as the popular idea of a witch suggests.
More generally, Halloween is controversial because some parents think it is an inappropriate, possibly dangerous holiday for children. In modern society, children are in some physical danger when they go trick-or-treating because they are walking around neighborhoods in the dark, accepting candy from strangers. The frightening imagery surrounding Halloween is also a concern. Many parents fear that monsters and ghosts are too disturbing to children, noting that younger trick-or-treaters have a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality and may be overwhelmed by people in monster costumes. In recent years, more and more parents have steered away from trick-or-treating, taking their children to school or church Halloween parties instead.
This is a tough issue for parents, because they often have very fond memories of trick-or-treating when they were children, but don't feel comfortable taking their own kids out. They say that Halloween was less frightening when they were kids because it was mostly about dressing up in fun costumes, and children weren't exposed to as much disturbing imagery in popular culture. Modern horror movies have become a particularly sore point for concerned parents, as they are usually extremely violent.
Others note that many aspects of Halloween are important to children. Dressing up can give a shy child a boost of self-confidence, and trick-or-treating may create a healthy feeling of community in a neighborhood. Most of all, adults who love Halloween would hate to see their favorite traditions phased out, because they remember how much they enjoyed them when they were kids. At this point, Halloween does seem to be headed for some changes, but there are many different ideas of what these changes should be.
The Love of Halloween
So now that we know where the different elements of Halloween come from, the question remains: Why do we revel in a celebration of death and supernatural forces?
Two related questions are:
- Why do we enjoy being scared?
- Why do we enjoy dressing up as scary figures?
All of these pleasures seem to be universal human traits, with death-related festivals and costume parades popping up in many cultures. As human beings, we are acutely aware of our own mortality and death in general. Human cultures are obsessed with death because we cannot understand it, yet it looms over everything we do. It is one of the most frightening mysteries we face in life. One way to feel more comfortable with this unknown realm is to make light of it with a festival. This brings all of the frightening ideas out in the open, where we can face them more comfortably, enjoying ourselves with other people instead of contemplating mortality on our own.
In addition to working through uneasiness about death and supernatural mysteries, people like to feel frightened for purely biological reasons. When you watch a scary movie or take a ride on a roller coaster, your brain triggers a fear response. Your body releases adrenaline and other hormones that provide extra energy to deal with the situation. When you're actually in danger, of course, you don't enjoy the feeling of these hormones, you simply use them to fight, escape or take some other action. When the danger is simulated, though, your mind knows you're actually safe and you enjoy the energy that the hormones give you. Intentional, contained fear is fun because it provides a hormone rush and helps you work through your general fears in a safe environment. Learn more about this reaction in How Fear Works.
By dressing up as our fears, we embrace them even more closely, taking control of them to some extent. This can be particularly effective with children. They usually don't fear mortality as much as they do sinister figures like monsters and ghosts. Once they've dressed themselves up as a monster and played that character, they cut through some of the monster's mystery, making it less ominous.
Trick-or-treating is not all about dressing up as frightening figures, of course. Just as often, children dress as a favorite cartoon character or an adult figure such as a firefighter or astronaut. The pleasure in this is the simple joy of playacting -- kids look forward to Halloween because they get to inhabit a character, whether it be a frightening figure or an idolized superhero. Adults enjoy dressing up for similar reasons, and this is why the masquerade plays a part in so many festivals from different cultures. Putting on a mask lets people drop their inhibitions and step outside of themselves for an evening. People in costumes often say and do things they probably wouldn't say or do in their everyday life. It's very satisfying to step into another character for a while, even (or especially) for a grown-up.
Halloween seems to serve a valuable function for many children and adults. It continues to be so popular because it fills our basic need to address the mysteries that frighten us and even celebrate them. It is a real testament to the power of Halloween traditions that they have been passed down and embraced by so many generations.
For more information on Halloween, other holidays and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Halloween Quiz
- How to Carve a Pumpkin
- How to Throw a Halloween Party
- Costumes 101
- How often does Halloween candy tampering really happen?
- What is candy corn and how is it made?
- How Urban Legends Work
- How Nostradamus Works
- How Witchcraft Works
- How Vampires Work
- How Bats Work
- How Chupacabras Work
- How Bigfoot Works
- How Black Lights Work
- How Light Sticks Work