I don’t know about you, but going to a Catholic school as a kid I was taught that Halloween had its origins in ‘a world of evil and thank goodness it was followed by All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day‘. That never discouraged any of us kids from dressing up as hobos, indians, devils, princesses or soldiers back in the 1950s and begging for candy door-to-door. We threatened to play tricks like all kids but, if called on it, we wouldn’t have been prepared to follow through.
In doing a little research, I’ve found that the history of Halloween is far different than what Monsignor Watley, at Our Lady of Lourdes School, promised us during his weekly visit to our classroom. Could he have been wrong? Back then I didn’t think so, but here’s what I recently found out:
An Ancient Humble Origin
Autumn was a time of change…the season and the lifestyle. The Celts believed that the spirits of the dead would mingle with the living on the night of October 31st…some good and some evil or mischievous…faeries, ghosts and demons.
Bonfires were built and lit up the night. The people honored those who had died the previous year and believed the fire helped them move on to the otherworld. They brought fruits, vegetables and animals to sacrifice to appease the spirits and to keep them away from the living. The people also left food at their doors to honor good spirits and encourage them to bestow good fortune on the village residents.
They wore masks and costumes of animal skins and heads to scare off the evil spirits and keep them from causing trouble, like bringing sickness down on the people.
It is believed that on that night of All Hallows Eve, “the cooking fires in the homes would be extinguished. The Druids, the Celtic priests, would meet in the hilltop in the dark oak forest. The Druids would light new fires and offer sacrifices of crops and animals to thank the gods for the harvest and appease the gods of the coming winter.
The morning after, the Druid priests would give a hot ember from the fires to each family, who would then take them home to start new cooking fires.”
Fire was an important component in the lives of the Celts. It cooked their food and warmed their homes, but it also kept evil spirits at bay.
All Hallow’s Eve, among Catholics, was always a religious holiday. Hallow meaning sainted or holy, October 31st, is the eve of All Saint’s Day, celebrated on November 1st. Most of America was populated by non-Catholics until the 20th century. Townspeople would be shunned, punished or arrested for partaking in Catholic holiday festivities and so, it took many years to catch on among non-Catholics.
The first Halloween lanterns were created a few hundred years ago in Ireland and Scotland from hollowed-out turnips with embers or candles inside. When the Scots and Irish emigrated to America, they found few turnips. Pumpkins were more plentiful and they soon realized how much easier it was to carve a pumpkin than a turnip.
According to, Socyberty.com , “the American tradition of trick or treating dates back to the All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor people would beg for food and families would give them “soul cakes” in return for a promise to pray for the families dead relatives. This was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. It was referred to as “going a-souling and was eventually taken up by children who would visit houses in their neighborhoods for food and money.”
Trick-or-Treating began to gain a foothold across the United States in the 1930’s. Though, begging for treats was not a popular concept in some areas. Adults “saw it as a form of extortion, with reactions ranging from bemused indulgence to anger.” I remember a few of my neighbors, in the 1950s and 60s, harbored these feelings and refused to partake in the tradition.
What do you think of these ancient customs? What was your favorite costume as a child? What’s your favorite costume today?
You know I love hearing from you and anxiously await your comments!
Once the trick-or-treaters have been satisfied with handfuls of sweets, relax and enjoy a slice of Apple Pie or Pumpkin Bread with your hot cider. Then snuggle on the couch with your main squeeze and watch a Halloween classic on your television.