Halloween is an annual celebration, but just what is it actually a
celebration of? And how did this peculiar custom originate? Is it, as
some claim, a kind of demon worship? Or is it just a harmless
vestige of some ancient pagan ritual?
The word itself, "Halloween," actually has its origins in the
Catholic Church. It comes from a contracted corruption of All
Hallows Eve. November 1, "All Hollows Day" (or "All Saints Day"), is a
Catholic day of observance in honor of saints. But, in the 5th
century BC, in Celtic Ireland, summer officially ended on October
31. The holiday was called Samhain (sow-en), the Celtic New year.
One story says that, on that day, the disembodied spirits of all
those who had died throughout the preceding year would come
back in search of living bodies to possess for the next year. It was
believed to be their only hope for the afterlife. The Celts believed all
laws of space and time were suspended during this time, allowing
the spirit world to intermingle with the living.
Naturally, the still-living did not want to be possessed. So on the
night of October 31, villagers would extinguish the fires in their
homes, to make them cold and undesirable. They would then dress
up in all manner of ghoulish costumes and noisily paraded around
the neighborhood, being as destructive as possible in order to
frighten away spirits looking for bodies to possess.
Probably a better explanation of why the Celts extinguished their
fires was not to discourage spirit possession, but so that all the
Celtic tribes could relight their fires from a common source, the
Druidic fire that was kept burning in the Middle of Ireland, at
The Romans adopted the Celtic practices as their own. But in the
first century AD, Samhain was assimilated into celebrations of some
of the other Roman traditions that took place in October, such as
their day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees.
The symbol of Pomona is the apple, which might explain the origin
of our modern tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween.
The thrust of the practices also changed over time to become
more ritualized. As belief in spirit possession waned, the practice of
dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches took on a more
The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not
with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom
called souling. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians
would walk from village to village begging for "soul cakes," made
out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes
the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to
say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was
believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and
that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul's passage to
The Jack-o-lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore.
As the tale is told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a
drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then
carved an image of a cross in the tree's trunk, trapping the devil up
the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never
tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree.
According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied
entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied
access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil
gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid
darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to
keep it glowing longer.
The Irish used turnips as their "Jack's lanterns" originally. But
when the immigrants came to America, they found that pumpkins
were far more plentiful than turnips. So the Jack-O-Lantern in
America was a hollowed-out pumpkin, lit with an ember.
So, although some cults may have adopted Halloween as their
favorite "holiday," the day itself did not grow out of evil practices. It
grew out of the rituals of Celts celebrating a new year, and out of
Medieval prayer rituals of Europeans. And today, even many
churches have Halloween parties or pumpkin carving events for the
kids. After all, the day itself is only as evil as one cares to make it.
© 1995-2002 by Jerry Wilson; Get Permission to Reprint this
References: Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday
Things, 1987; and Dr. Joseph Gahagan, University of Wisconsin-
Milwaukee, Personal letter, 1997