Halloween: From Pagans to Parties
Did you know that we can credit the origins of our favorite spooky holiday to Pagans and Christians alike? They didn’t exactly sit down and plan a party together, but the ideas were all there. The Pagans started the party. The Christians designed the decorations. In this “Did You Know?” we will learn how we went from Pagan New Years’ bash to throwing on a pair of Oakleys and a blonde spikey wig to be Guy Fieri for your neighbor’s Halloween party.
Pagan New Year
The Celts, one of Europe’s oldest tribes, split the year into two parts: light and dark. Here in Minnesota where it is now getting dark at 6:00 pm, we feel that. Samhain was the Celtic festival celebrated the night before the new year, which started on November 1st. The end of summer and harvest was marked with a giant fire and dressing in animal heads and skins. On this night it was believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead would thin. The dead were said to return to earth and the living we warned not to be alone in the dark lest they be lost to the land of the dead.
A Parade of Angels and Devils
A few hundred years later, the Christians realized that they just couldn’t tell folks to do away with their old parties and expect to be accepted. So, by the 9th century when Christianity really started to make its way across the Celtic lands, All Saints day had been placed on November 1st. The hopes were that it would take all the fun out of the Pagan rager Samhain. All Saints Day, also called All Hallows’ Day, commemorates the saints who have gone to heaven. The day before this Christian holiday soon became known as “All Hallows’ Eve” and eventually Halloween.
Not wanting saints to get all the soul commemorating, the church made All Souls’ Day for the rest of the folks who were unable to perform miracles during their lives. On this day families honored their departed. It was a church-sanctioned day celebrating death. Children would often go door-to-door offering to pray for the dead to help them out of Purgatory. In return, the families would give the children “soul cakes”. And if you thought the Samhain fun was lost, All Souls’ Day also came with a bonfire and a parade of saints, angels, and devils.
Ghost Stories and Vandalism
Pressing the fast-forward button, the Puritans who settled New England wanted nothing to do with the All Hallows’ Eve raucousness of the old world. Luckily, the traditions were not only maintained but blended with other European cultures in the southern colonies. It was during this time where accounts of Halloween celebrations recount the telling of ghost stories.
It wasn’t until the later part of the 1800s that Halloween really became popular in the United States. The bonfires and ghost stories were not what was the focus of the holiday during this time. It was pure mischief. More than just soaping windows and scaring widows, the tricks began to take on a dangerous nature. Fires were set, trains derailed, and livestock lost. At the end of the century, a concentrated effort was made to make Halloween into a community based, neighborly activity. Schools and towns were encouraged to have parties, food, games, and contests to entertain young people.
A Deal is Struck
By the early 20th century Halloween was much like we know it today. Vandalism was still an issue, but treats were now offered as a bribe. A bargain was struck upfront. A whippersnapper would ask a homeowner if they desired a trick to be played on them which could lead to damaged property. If the adult was not desirous of said trick, he or she simply had to mollify the youth with a tasty treat and the transaction was complete. Over the years the whole deal was shortened to “Trick-or-treat”.
The imagery and nuances of the holiday have threads and stories that range from murderous to benign. Any day that is thousands of years in the making will have too much information for one blog post. Look up the history of the Jack-o-Lantern. Or why witches ride brooms. Everything is worth a deeper dive.
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