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Its origins, customs and traditions

pumpkins Traditions originating in Celtic times:

The origin of Halloween lies in the traditions of the Celtic people.

The Celts coalesced as a society circa 800 BCE. They were located in what is now the United Kingdom, much of Western Europe and an isolated enclave in what is now Turkey. They held a major celebration near the end of our month of October, which they called called "Samhain," a festival to recognize the end of summer. There seeems to be little standardization in the pronounciation of "Samhain." Sam-hane, Sow-in, sow-en, sow-an, soow-an, sow-ween, etc. 1 The story that "Samhain" was a Celtic God of the Dead appears to be a myth. However, it has been repeated so often by conservative Christian and secular sources that it has taken on a life of its own.

The Celts believed that the veil between this world and the next was thinnest at this time of year. Friends and relatives who had died would often return, with their souls inhabiting an animal - often a black cat. Black cats have remained a symbol of Halloween down to the present time.

In celebration of the recently completed harvest, Celts would give offerings of food to the Gods. They often went from door to door to collect food to donate to their deities. Also, young Celts would ask the townspeople for kindling and wood, and take it to top of the hill for the Samhain bonfire. These are two of the possible origins of present day "trick or treating."

Samhain was a fire festival. Sacred bonfires were lit on hill tops in honor of the Gods. The townspeople would take an ember from the bonfire to their home and re-light the fire in their family hearth. The ember would usually be carried in a holder -- often a turnip or gourd. They felt nervous about walking home in the dark; they were afraid of evil spirits. So they dressed up in costumes and carved scary faces in their ember holders. They hoped that the spirits would be frightened and not bother them. Children continue to dress up today in various costumes. decorated pumpkin Pumpkins are now the objects of choice into which to carve faces.

Wiccans and some other Neopagans base much of their religious faith on the religion of the Celts. They continue to celebrate Samhain today., which they often pronounce "sow-en."

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Traditions developed since Celtic times:

There are many folk traditions associated with Halloween. It is possible that some had their origins in Celtic times.

bullet Jack-o'-lantern: The term "Jack-o'-lantern" came from an Irish folk tale of the 18th century. Jack was an Irishman. He had tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree. He then cut a cross symbol in the tree trunk, thus trapping the Devil in the branches. When Jack died, he was unable to again access to Heaven because of his meanness. The Devil, having a long memory, would not allow him into Hell. So he was forced to walk the earth endlessly. The devil took pity on him and gave him a piece of coal to light his path. Jack put it inside a hollowed-out turnip that he had been eating.

bullet pentacleApples were considered have long been associated with female deities, and with immortality, resurrection, and knowledge. One reason is that if an apple is cut through its equator, it will reveal a five-pointed star outlined at the center of each hemisphere. This was a pentagram -- a Goddess symbol among the Roma (Gypsies), ancient Celts, ancient Egyptians, modern-day Wiccans, etc. There are many Halloween folk traditions associated with apples: 

bullet Unmarried people would attempt to take a bite out of an apple bobbing in a pail of water, or suspended on a string. The first person to do so was believed to be the next person to marry.

bullet Peeling an apple in front of a candle-lit mirror was believed to produce the image of one's future spouse. 2

bullet Attempting to produce a long unbroken apple peel was said to estimate the number of years you had to live. The longer the peel, the longer your life expectancy.

bulletIn All Souls' Day, some European Christians had a tradition of going from home to home, asking for soul cakes, or currant buns. In return, they would pray for the souls of the homeowner's relatives.

Origins of Christian holy days:

bullet All Saints' Day was created by Pope Boniface IV in the 7th century CE. There were so many saints by this time that there were not enough days in the year to accommodate all of them. So, All Saints' Day was created to recognize the saints who were without their own day, and also to celebrate saints that the Church had failed to recognize. It originally was held on May 13, but was moved in 835 CE by Pope Gregory to November 1. This may have been done in order to distract Christians from celebrating Samhain.

bullet Halloween was originally called All Hallows' Eve which means the evening before All Saints' Day. "Hallow" is an Old English word for "saint". This was shortened to Hallowe'en and finally to Halloween. Satanists have adopted Hallowe'en as one of their three main seasonal days of celebration. The others are Walpurgus Nacht on MAY-1 and the Satanist's personal birthday.

bullet All Souls' Day was created for NOV-2 to honor faithful Christians who had died but were not saints. The three days from OCT-31 to NOV-2 was given the name Hallow Tide.

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Halloween in North America

Halloween has become a major folk holiday in the US and Canada. "Trick or Treaters" go from door to door and collect candies, apples and other goodies. Hallmark Cards reports that 65% of Americans will decorate their homes and offices for Halloween. This percentage is exceeded only by Christmas.

Some interesting facts about the celebration of Halloween:

bullet Halloween is the holiday when the most candy is sold; it is second only to Christmas in total sales. North Americans spend over $20 million on Halloween candies yearly. 3

bullet Halloween is the third-largest party occasion next to Christmas and New Year's Eve.

bullet Halloween is the Number 1 season for selling humorous greeting cards. In North America, some 25 million Halloween cards are sold annually. 3

bullet Rumors circulated some years ago that some evil people were distributing adulterated food to children: poison mixed with candy; razor blades and pins in apples. Although these rumors have generally been shown to be hoaxes, the fear persists. Many adults now only give out pre-packaged food; many parents check their children's collection and discard anything that could possibly have been adulterated.

bullet For many decades, the United Nations Children's' Fund (UNICEF) has distributed boxes to children so that they can collect money at Halloween time. During the 1950's, a few US public schools banned the UNICEF boxes, over suspicions that it might be a Communist plot.

bullet The town of Hancock, MD has refused for more than 20 years to declare a specific date for Halloween. Their rationale was that if they set a particular date and a child gets hurt during the trick-or-treating, then the town might be liable for damages.

bullet The school board of Hillsborough NJ banneds all religious celebrations in its schools. So, they have replaced Halloween with a "Fall Festival". St. Valentine's day has become "Special Person Day."

bullet In many jurisdictions, Halloween is held on Saturday, OCT-30 when OCT-31 falls on a Sunday. This is to avoid direct conflict between Halloween celebrations and church services.

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This topic continues in the next essay.

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks were accessible on 2016-SEP, but are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "How do you pronounce Samhain," Mystic Wicks, at:
  2. book cover B.G. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets," Harper & Row, (1983), Pages 48-50. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  3. Peter Smith, "By the Numbers," The Toronto Star, 2002-OCT-27.

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Copyright 1997 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2018-OCT-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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