When I was a young child, I never thought about the reason why we celebrate Halloween. Instead, I focused on how much candy I could collect on a single night and dress up in a generic costume like a cowboy or a firefighter with a sweater underneath because it’d be too cold to just wear the costume itself. You didn’t mind going to random people’s houses for candy, it was candy and it was essentially free. However, now that I’m older, the act of Trick or Treating has lost its spark, and I’m more curious why Halloween is such a big cultural event for the U.S. and other countries.
The origins of Halloween have ties to the Celtic festival called Samhain. At this event, people would dress up in costumes and light bonfires to ward off ghosts. The Celtics interpreted October 31st as the end of summer and the harvest. This was identified as the beginning of All Hallows Eve. It marked the beginning of the dark, cold winter in which Celtics associated with human death. They believed that on the night of Halloween, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. When this occurred, the Celtics believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth for that day. Some alleged consequences included damage to crops and causing mischief amongst the living. However, the Celtics saw the presence of otherworldly spirits as an opportunity for the Celtic priests to make predictions about the future. To honor that day, the priests built huge sacred bonfires, where people can offer crops and dead animals as sacrifices by burning them. They would also wear costumes consisting of animal heads and skins to disguise themselves from ghosts, enjoyed special feasts, and told each other’s fortunes.
The Catholics took some inspiration from Halloween by celebrating All Saints Day which occurs after Halloween on November 1st. All Saints Day focuses on the prayer for the dead similar to the Day of the Dead celebrations. Some people called Halloween All Hallows Eve wherein hallows mean saints. Catholics modified the jack-o-lantern idea by hollowing out pumpkins instead of turnips because pumpkins were the most common item at the time. The jack-o-lantern symbolized a person’s soul in Purgatory, which is why it is lit up and has an odd grin. Mirror-gazing was another popular practice during Halloween, where people hoped to catch a vision of their futures by looking to the mirrors. People would also write messages in milk on paper and hide the paper in a walnut (cut open of course). After securing the message, people would roast the walnut over a fire hot enough for the milk to turn brown which outlined the letters to form a message; they were considered early forms of what we call today fortune cookies.
When thinking about Halloween, it is a very odd holiday to celebrate, especially for children. It has many associations with death and souls that it’s strange that this event is widely considered a children’s holiday. With Halloween, I cannot ignore its similarities to All Souls Day and the Day of the Dead celebrations. They have very similar premises; however, they are not the same as Halloween from what people have told me. Despite that, Halloween is a spooky time where children can obtain candy and adults can remember and honor those who have passed way in their lives.