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Strange Days: This history of Halloween

Gregory A. Williams

   Costumes, jack o' lanterns, trick or treating and monster-themed parties are some of the many traditions that are synonymous with Halloween here in America, but in order to understand how we got here, we must first travel back to Europe over 2000 years ago. Samhain (pronounced sah-win) loosely translates to "summer's end" or possibly "together" in Gaelic, was a festival celebrated on Nov. 1 by Europe's Celtic people. 

   Considered their New Year's Day, this day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the time to prepare for the cold, dark winter that would inevitably come. In preparation for winter, resources were gathered for the long winter months ahead. Cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and livestock were slaughtered for winter. 

    The Celts believed that on Samhain Eve - our Halloween - the boundary between our world and the next would become weak allowing for the souls of the dead, and other beings, to slip through and wander the Earth. In addition to communing with the dead, the divination rituals were common and animal sacrifices were made to appease their gods. Feasts were held, at which the souls of dead relatives were invited to attend. 

    Because of this practice, it has been likened to a festival of the dead.  Cognizant of the possibility that harmful spirits and creatures could be about, they protected themselves by wearing costumes, made up of animal heads and skins, to confuse the spirits and to possibly prevent them from becoming possessed. This could possibly be where our custom of dressing up for Halloween originates. People would dress up and gather around sacred bonfires and burn crops and tell each other fortunes. 

    An early form of trick or treating was the act of going from door to door, in disguise, asking for food.  Sometimes people wore costumes to perform in plays or skits. Another predecessor to trick or treating was the English tradition of "souling", when poor people would knock on doors on Hallowmas (an archaic term for a Christian feast day now known as All Saints Day, Nov. 1) asking for donations in food (where the term 'soul-cakes' comes from) in exchange for singing songs and offering prayers for the dead. This practice was unsurprisingly taken from the Celtics Samhain festival by the early Church. In the seventh century, 

    Pope Boniface IV decreed Nov. 1 All Saints' Day or All Hallows' Day. The night before this we now know as Halloween, or All Hallows' Eve. We cannot forget to appreciate the European Immigrants that brought Halloween to the United States, especially the Irish immigrants who were fleeing famines during the first half of the nineteenth century. Already known in North America since the colonial days, Halloween was celebrated mostly by children in the middle of the 20th century. Now, to my everlasting delight, Halloween is celebrated by both children and adults and just about every institution. From Strange Days to you, Happy Samhain, Happy All Hallows' Eve and of course, Happy Halloween!