Who Knew? The Origins of Halloween Traditions

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Halloween, second only to Christmas in popularity, has its origins in a pagan holiday known as All Hollows Eve which honors the dead. Halloween precedes All Saints Day, which was created by Christians in order to convert said pagans, and in a few religious sects is viewed as an evil holiday. However, Halloween is usually celebrated with no association to pagan rituals or the occult.

Halloween, like most holidays, influences each and every one of us in some way or another. Holidays serve the purpose of celebrating or honoring aspects of culture. For example, with Christmas you either celebrate the religious or material facets of the day – both topics being heavily tied into a person’s culture and values. With Halloween being only a few days from now, look at the cultural aspects of All Hollows Eve. Whether you are getting dressed up for a theme party or watching scary movies and eating sweets with friends, like other holidays, the cultural aspects of Halloween influence everyone. In honor of Halloween looming around the corner, here are some of the staples of Halloween culture that influence people worldwide:

1. Trick-or-Treating

Everyone can remember the excitement they felt as a child when getting into their Halloween costumes and running up their neighbors’ front steps, orange plastic jack-o-lantern in hand, prepared for the treasure trove of sugary sweets they would devour later that night. But trick-or-treating did not always exist. For North America, the act of trick-or-treating popped up in the 1920’s and 1930’s; however, the act of “souling” predates to the Middle Ages. Most historians believe that “souling” inspired future acts like trick-or-treating. “Souling” occurred when poor people in Middle Age England would go door-to-door on Hallowmas – November 1st- and would receive food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day – November 2nd. Over time, this transformed into the modern charade of trick-or-treating: dressing up as dead creatures and monsters in return for candy.

2. Monsters, Demons, & Scary Movies

Halloween used to be associated with the mourning of loved ones who had passed on, but, today, Halloween is a night when we can dress as our greatest fears or favorite fictional characters. This came from the Celtics who believes that by guising as frightening beings, they could ward off evil spirits on a night historically set aside for the dead. The Celtics’ decision to integrate monsters and evil creatures into a holiday originally centered on mourning incorporated the idea of evil and supernaturalism to Halloween. We can thank the Celts for our need to dress as Freddy Krueger and go see the Rocky Horror Picture Show on Halloween.

3 Pumpkin Carving and Jack-O-Lanterns

We can thank immigrants for this tradition. When coming over to America, immigrants brought the tale of Jack O’Lantern with them. In the tale, Jack, a drunk, relished in playing practical jokes on innocent villagers until, one day, Jack made the huge mistake of playing a practical joke on the Devil himself. Jack convinced the Devil to climb up a tree and then trapped him by encircling the tree with crosses. He made a deal with the Devil to release him only if the Devil swears to never claim his soul and the Devil accepted. However, this backfired because when Jack died, he was deemed too evil to go to Heaven, but the Devil kept his promise of keeping Jack out of Hell. Thus, Jack was doomed to roam the Earth for eternity with a forever-burning ember inside of a carved out turnip that served to light Jack’s eternal wandering. Initially, carving turnips was the tradition, but when pumpkins became more accessible and easier to carve, pumpkins became the primary source of Jack’s eternal light inflamed on doorsteps every year.

Halloween is heavily rooted in culture and is responsible for meshing a lot of cultures and ideas, so this Halloween, go out and experience what the early Christians, pagans, Celts, and American immigrants created through this cultural amalgamation.

Image: William Warby