This Week in History: Halloween

Dive into the History and traditions of the holiday the world is celebrating this weekend- Halloween

Wandering spirits roaming the dark were believed to be kept at bay by lanterns like this early Jack-o-lantern carved out of a turnip.

Usually the articles in this column start out with a somewhat dramatic summary and recounting of a powerful moment in history, but not this one. Oct. 31, for about every year since the 11th century and in various forms and iterations, is Halloween! 

The origin of Halloween lies in various fall-time celebrations and holidays in Europe, particularly in those of Celtic cultures (typically pronounced “KEL-tik” — sorry, Boston fans). The Celtic tribes, who lived in what is now modern day Ireland, Great Britain and parts of northern France, observed a holiday called Samhain (pronounced SOW-in) in Irish. The significance of its date — by modern estimations Nov. 1–7, with the Gaelic calendar day beginning at sunset — marks the halfway point between autumn solstice and equinox, and as one of four major holidays in the calendar indicated the end of harvest and the beginning of winter. 

Most of the Samhain traditions we associate with Halloween originated from the 16th to 18th centuries. Samhain, like the other three major holidays mentioned, was considered a “liminal time,” or one where the boundaries between the physical world and the otherworld are weakest. The otherworld, often called “Tír na nÓg” in Irish, was a fabled space in which gods, spirits and fairies dwelled. Much of Celtic mythology features heroes who venture to the other side, or beings that venture to ours. Parts of the celebrations of Samhain take care to pacify the spirits who wander forth to secure safety through winter and to provide hospitality to the returning spirits of the dead.

The Halloween tradition of dressing up comes from the Samhain activities of mumming and guising, in which people would dress up and perform usually supernatural tales or scenes. Guisers were known to keep lanterns to keep away the spirits lurking in the dark.

One more recent example of guising from a magazine in 1895 describes Scottish children in costume carrying carved turnips from door to door and receiving coins, fruits, and pastries. According to the account, “these turnips have the features of a wild human face cut out and accentuated within the rind so that the candle placed within may give light through eyes, nostrils and mouth. The lid fits tightly and is painted to represent shaggy, wild locks, whilst blue and red paint marks off cheeks, etc., all adding to the general weirdness, even grewsomeness [sic], of this moving humanlike head” — an early depiction of a modern-day Jack-o-lantern. 

As almost all Celtic traditions were stories told orally, much of what remains is written after the introduction of Christianity to Celtic-speaking regions. As a result many traditions were erased or adopted into the Christian mythos. For example, semblances of the Irish goddess Brigid remain in the Catholic Saint Brigid of Kildare. Thus many Samhain traditions were adopted in the Christian celebration of All Hallows Eve a part of the Allhallowtide, a time of prayer for the recently deceased and honor for the saints. In the medieval period people who had no relics of saints would dress up as the saints themselves. Later, some Protestants — not believing in the Catholic idea of Purgatory — would perceive the wayward spirits as threatening and adopt some of these practices of illumination and disguise to ward them off.

In North America Halloween went largely uncelebrated for a long stretch of time. To no one’s surprise New England Puritans aren’t hot on the ideas of masquerading as corpses, dancing deep into the night, appeasing heretical spirits or idolizing. After Irish and Scottish immigrants began to arrive en masse in the 19th century their localized celebrations began to enter the mainstream of American society. 

In our adult years the eerie and fantastical nature of Halloween night may escape us. When we were young the sensation of frigid air, the alien appearance of familiar neighborhood streets rich with decoration and the frenzied hunt for candy made the night feel truly, well, liminal. In our twenties it’s more of an excuse to dress up either silly or sexy, get plastered and subvert the traditional face of pumpkin carving with pop culture references. But on this particular Halloween night, as a full moon rises over our dark and snowy lake, as the streets of college townhouses carry an uncanny silence of absent parties, and as we feel a collective sense of possession by the specters of plague, cold, and politics… well, if you feel the need to ward away and appease any old gods or fey, keep the old-fashioned traditions in mind.

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