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The Origin and Development of the Halloween Tradition

I’m sure that (most of you) recognize this song. It is finally fall, and what does that mean? Halloween, which is my favorite time of the year. From the candy to the costumes and the ghost stories, Halloween is a day of being somebody you are not and trying to scare the shit out of people. We love the thrill of this, but what made modern-day Halloween, well, modern-day Halloween? There are three stages of Halloween’s development – Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”), All Hallow’s Eve, and Halloween.

To begin, Halloween can be traced back about 2,000 years to the Celts of Europe who occupied parts of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. This was a pagan festival called Samhain (which means summer’s end in Garlic) that would celebrate the honor of the dead and would involve the sacrifices of crops and animals. There is no original written documentation of this festival that exist today from the ancient Celts, however there is reference to the festival in Roman records from when the Romans conquered Celt lands around AD43. The festival would be held around November 1st. Though a direct connection has not been made between Halloween and Samhain, but because Samhain and All Hallow’s Eve are so close on the calendar, many scholars believe that they influenced each other and later combined to create Halloween.

Second, around 600AD, Pope Boniface IV created All Saint’s Day, which honors saints and martyrs. This day was created to give Christians who did not want to celebrate a pagan festival something that was of positive spiritual value. With the expansion of Christianity in Europe, All Saint’s Day became the dominant holiday. The day before All Saint’s Day was called All Hallow’s Evening (which was later shortened to All Hallow’s Eve or All Hallow’s Even and changed over time to Halloween.) In 1000 AD the church made November 2nd All Soul’s Day, which was a day to honor the dead. It is widely believed that the church simply wanted to replace the Celtic festival with something of the same sort, just church-sanctioned. This day was celebrated with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. (Sound familiar?)

Finally, Halloween made it to America. The celebration of the holiday was extremely limited in New England because of the rigid protestant beliefs, but it was common in Maryland and the southern states. As the culture of different European ethnic groups and the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween emerged. The first American celebrations included “play Parties,” which are public events held to celebrate the harvest, neighbors would tell ghost stories, tell each other’s fortune, dance, and sing. In the second half of the 19th century, America was flooded with immigrants who helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally. This is when dressing up in costumes and going house to house asking for food or money stared. IN the late 1800s, people wanted Halloween to be centered around family and community rather than ghosts and witches. By the late 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-based holiday and by 1950s Halloween had evolved into a holiday directed towards kids. Today, Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually, making it the second largest commercial holiday.

In conclusion, Halloween has done a lot of evolving over the years, from Samhain, to All Hallow’s Eve, to Halloween. Everyone still enjoys the holiday to this day, even if the reason we celebrate is not quite the same as it was 2,000 years ago. Now that you know, this Halloween, be thankful you don’t have to sacrifice any animals or crops to enjoy the evening. So, sit back in your witches’ hat drinking your apple cider and enjoy yourself a scary movie instead. Happy Halloween!

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