By Howard J. Bennett
Since Halloween is only five days away, I’m sure that most of you have already picked out the costumes you plan to wear when you go trick-or-treating. I’m also sure that your parents have stocked up on lots of candy to satisfy the ghoulish creatures that stop by for a tasty treat.
Although Halloween is one of the most popular holidays in the United States, it did not start out the way it is practiced today.
Halloween can be traced back more than 2,000 years to a Celtic festival known as Samhain (SAH-wen) that celebrated the end of the summer harvest season. The ancient Celts lived in Northern Europe, especially Ireland, Britain, and France. (The “C” in Celtic is pronounced with a “K” sound.)
The Celts believed that the spirits of the dead roamed the towns and villages on the night of October 31. Because the Celts were superstitious, they feared that these spirits could create havoc by damaging crops, creating sickness, and even taking over the bodies of the living. To ward off danger, the Celts made huge bonfires and dressed in animal hides to frighten away the evil spirits. Today people light up the night with creepy decorations, and Jack-o’-lanterns. And rather than parading around in animal hides, most kids prefer to wear spooky costumes.
The origin of trick-or-treating is not well understood. Some people think it began with a custom called souling, when the poor went to people’s homes begging for soul cakes, which were round pieces of bread with currants. In return for the treats, the beggars would pray to help the recently deceased enter heaven.
So how did Samhain turn into Halloween? Well, like all cultural changes, it didn’t happen over night. Samhain was a pagan (nonreligious) celebration. As Christianity became the dominant religion in the world, the Catholic Church decided it didn’t like people celebrating a non-Christian holiday. Around the year 800 AD, the Church moved a spring holiday—All Saints’ Day—to November 1st. “Hallows” is another word for “saints,” so the night before All Saints’ Day became known as All Hallows’ Eve. From there, it was just a hop, skip, and a jump for All Hallows’ Eve to become Halloween.
So when you’re out Saturday night carrying a plastic pumpkin filled with MilkyWays, candy corn, and M&Ms, remember the ancient Celts whooping and hollering so keep safe from evil spirits.
© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 10/26/09.)
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