October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Halloween is the holiday most kids can’t wait for, but just what is it actually a celebration of? How did the traditions we know of come about? Is it, as some claim, a kind of demon worship? Or is it just a harmless ancient pagan ritual?

“Halloween” actually has its origins in the Catholic Church; it comes from a corruption of “All Hallows Eve,” “All Hallows Day,” or “All Saint’s Day.” November 1st, is a Catholic day of observance in honor of saints. But, in the 5th century BC in Celtic Ireland, summer officially ended on October 31st. 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 have 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 living didn’t want to be possessed. So, on the night of October 31st, villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes to make them cold and undesirable. Then, they would dress up in ghoulish costumes and noisily parade around the neighborhood, being destructive in order to frighten away spirits looking for bodies to possess. Because, what spirit would want an unruly body that looked frightening? Even those spirits have standards to live up to!

The ideas of the practices changed over time to become more ritualized. The practice of dressing up in costumes like ghosts and witches took on a more ceremonial role. Irish immigrants fleeing their country’s potato famine brought the custom of Halloween to America in the 1840s. At that time, the favorite pranks in New England included tipping over outhouses (no toilet paper for the trees?) and unhinging fence gates.

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 2nd, “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 their death, and that prayer (even by strangers) could expedite a soul’s passage to heaven.

The jack-o-lantern custom probably came from Irish folklore. As the tale is told, a man named Jack who was notorious as a drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing up 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 darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer. The Irish originally used turnips as their “Jack’s lanterns.” 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 and devil worshipers may have adopted Halloween as their favorite holiday, the day itself didn’t grow out of evil practices. It grew out of the rituals of Celts celebrating their new year, and out of medieval prayer rituals of Europeans. Today, it is only as evil as one cares to make. Have fun this Halloween, and remember to be safe!

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