ANCIENT ORIGINS OF HALLOWEEN
Halloween’s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future.
THE LEGEND OF “STINGY JACK”
People have been making jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween for centuries. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.
Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets are used. Immigrants from these countries brought the jack o’lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack-o’-lanterns.
HALLOWEEN AROUND THE WORLD
Halloween, one of the world’s oldest holidays, is still celebrated today in a number of countries around the globe. In Mexico and other Latin American countries, Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—honors deceased loved ones and ancestors. In countries such as Ireland, Canada and the United States, adults and children alike revel in the popular Halloween holiday, which derived from ancient festivals and religious rituals.
DIA DE LOS MUERTOS
In Mexico, Latin America and Spain, All Souls’ Day, which takes place on November 2, is commemorated with a three-day celebration that begins on the evening of October 31. The celebration is designed to honor the dead who, it is believed, return to their earthly homes on Halloween. Many families construct an altar to the dead in their homes to honor deceased relatives and decorate it with candy, flowers, photographs, samples of the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, and fresh water. Often, a wash basin and towel are left out so that the spirit can wash before indulging in the feast.Candles and incense are burned to help the deceased find the way home. Relatives also tidy the grave sites of their departed family members. This can include snipping weeds, making repairs, and painting. The grave is then decorated with flowers, wreaths, or paper streamers. On November 2, relatives gather at the grave site to picnic and reminisce. Some gatherings even include tequila and a mariachi band.
GUY FAWKES DAY
On the evening of November 5, bonfires are lit throughout England. Effigies are burned and fireworks are set off. Although it falls around the same time and has some similar traditions, this celebration has little to do with Halloween or the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The English, for the most part, stopped celebrating Halloween as Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation began to spread. As followers of the new religion did not believe in saints, they had no reason to celebrate the eve of All Saints’ Day. However, a new autumn ritual did emerge. Guy Fawkes Day festivities were designed to commemorate the execution of a notorious English traitor, Guy Fawkes.
On November 5, 1606, Fawkes was executed after being convicted of attempting to blow up England’s parliament building. Fawkes was a member of a Catholic group who wanted to remove the Protestant King James from power. The original Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated right after his execution. The first bonfires, which were called “bone fires,” were set up to burn effigies and symbolic “bones” of the Catholic pope. It was not until two centuries later that effigies of the pope were replaced with those of Guy Fawkes. In addition to making effigies to be burned in the fires, children in some parts of England also walk the streets carrying an effigy or “guy” and ask for “a penny for the guy,” although they keep the money for themselves. This is as close to the American practice of “trick-or-treating” as can be found in England today. Guy Fawkes Day was even celebrated by the pilgrims at the first settlement at Plymouth. However, as the young nation began to develop its own history, Guy Fawkes was celebrated less frequently and eventually died out.
HALLOWEEN: WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
In Ireland, where Halloween originated, the day is still celebrated much as it is in the United States. In rural areas, bonfires are lit as they were in the days of the Celts, and all over the country, children get dressed up in costumes and spend the evening “trick-or-treating” in their neighborhoods. After trick-or-treating, most people attend parties with neighbors and friends. At the parties, many games are played, including “snap-apple,” a game in which an apple on a string is tied to a doorframe or tree and players attempt to bite the hanging apple. In addition to bobbing for apples, parents often arrange treasure hunts, with candy or pastries as the “treasure.” The Irish also play a card game where cards are laid face down on a table with candy or coins underneath them. When a child chooses a card, he receives whatever prize is found below it.
A traditional food eaten on Halloween is barnbrack, a kind of fruitcake that can be bought in stores or baked at home. A muslin-wrapped treat is baked inside the cake that, it is said, can foretell the eater’s future. If a ring is found, it means that the person will soon be wed; a piece of straw means that a prosperous year is on its way. Children are also known to play tricks on their neighbors, such as “knock-a-dolly,” a prank in which children knock on the doors of their neighbors, but run away before the door is opened.