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Halloween

Origins, customs and traditions

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Pumpkin Traditions originating in Celtic times:

The origin of Halloween lies in the traditions of the Celtic people.

The Celts coalesced as a society circa 800 BCE. They were located in what is now the United Kingdom, much of Western Europe and an isolated enclave in what is now Turkey. They held a major celebration near the end of our month of October, which they called called "Samhain," a festival to recognize the end of summer. There seeems to be little standardization in the pronounciation of "Samhain." Sam-hane, Sow-in, sow-en, sow-an, soow-an, sow-ween, etc. 13 The story that "Samhain" was a Celtic God of the Dead appears to be a myth. However, it has been repeated so often by conservative Christian and secular sources that it has taken on a life of its own.

The Celts believed that the veil between this world and the next was thinnest at this time of year. Friends and relatives who had died would often return, with their souls inhabiting an animal - often a black cat. Black cats have remained a symbol of Halloween down to the present time.

In celebration of the recently completed harvest, Celts would give offerings of food to the Gods. They often went from door to door to collect food to donate to their deities. Also, young Celts would ask the townspeople for kindling and wood, and take it to top of the hill for the Samhain bonfire. These are two of the possible origins of present day "trick or treating."

Samhain was a fire festival. Sacred bonfires were lit on the tops of hills in honor of the Gods. The townspeople would take an ember from the bonfire to their home and re-light the fire in their family hearth. The ember would usually be carried in a holder - often a turnip or gourd. They felt nervous about walking home in the dark; they were afraid of evil spirits. So they dressed up in costumes and carved scary faces in their ember holders. They hoped that the spirits would be frightened and not bother them. Children continue to dress up today in various costumes. Pumpkins are now the objects of choice into which to carve faces.

Wiccans and some other Neopagans base much of their religious faith on the religion of the Celts. They continue to celebrate Samhain today.

Traditions developed since Celtic times:

There are many folk traditions associated with Halloween. It is possible that some had their origins in Celtic times.

bulletJack-o'-lantern: The term "Jack-o'-lantern" came from an Irish folk tale of the 18th century. Jack was an Irishman. He had tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree. He then cut a cross symbol in the tree trunk, thus trapping the Devil in the branches. When Jack died, he was unable to again access to Heaven because of his meanness. The Devil, having a long memory, would not allow him into Hell. So he was forced to walk the earth endlessly. The devil took pity on him and gave him a piece of coal to light his path. Jack put it inside a hollowed-out turnip that he had been eating.
bulletApples were considered have long been associated with female deities, and with immortality, resurrection, and knowledge. One reason is that if an apple is cut through its equator, it will reveal a five-pointed star outlined at the center of each hemisphere. This was a pentagram -- a Goddess symbol among the Roma (Gypsies), ancient Celts, ancient Egyptians, modern-day Wiccans, etc. There are many Halloween folk traditions associated with apples: 
bulletUnmarried people would attempt to take a bite out of an apple bobbing in a pail of water, or suspended on a string. The first person to do so was believed to be the next to marry.
bulletPeeling an apple in front of a candle-lit mirror was believed to produce the image of one's future spouse. 3
bulletAttempting to produce a long unbroken apple peel was said to estimate the number of years you had to live. The longer the peel, the longer your life expectancy.
bulletIn All Souls' Day, European Christians had a tradition of going from home to home, asking for soul cakes, or currant buns. In return, they would pray for the souls of the homeowner's relatives.

Origins of Christian holy days:

bulletAll Saints' Day was created by Pope Boniface IV in the 7th century CE. There were so many saints by this time that there were not enough days in the year to accommodate them. So, All Saints' Day was to recognize the saints who were without their own day, and to celebrate saints that the Church had failed to recognize. It originally was held on May 13, but was moved by Pope Gregory in 835 CE to November 1. This may have been done in order to distract Christians from celebrating Samhain.
bulletHalloween was originally called All Hallows' Eve which means the evening before All Saints' Day. "Hallow" is an Old English word for "saint". This was shortened to Hallowe'en and finally to Halloween. Satanists have adopted Hallowe'en as one of their three main seasonal days of celebration. The others are Walpurgus Nacht on MAY-1 and the Satanist's personal birthday.
bulletAll Souls' Day was created for NOV-2 to honor faithful Christians who had died but were not saints. The three days from OCT-31 to NOV-2 was given the name Hallow Tide.

Halloween in North America

Halloween has become a major folk holiday in the US and Canada. "Trick or Treaters" go from door to door and collect candies, apples and other goodies. Hallmark Cards reports that 65% of Americans will decorate their homes and offices for Halloween. This percentage is exceeded only by Christmas.

Some interesting facts about the celebration of Halloween:

bulletHalloween is the holiday when the most candy is sold; it is second only to Christmas in total sales. North Americans spend over $20 million on Halloween candies yearly. 12
bulletHalloween is the third-largest party occasion next to Christmas and New Year's Eve.
bulletHalloween is the Number 1 season for selling humorous greeting cards. In North America, some 25 million cards are sold annually. 12
bulletRumors circulated some years ago that some evil people were distributing adulterated food to children: poison mixed with candy; razor blades and pins in apples. Although these rumors have generally been shown to be hoaxes, the fear persists. Many adults now only give out pre-packaged food; many parents check their children's collection and discard anything that could possibly have been adulterated.
bulletFor many decades, the United Nations Children's' Fund (UNICEF) has distributed boxes to children so that they can collect money at Halloween time. During the 1950's, a few US public schools banned the UNICEF boxes, over suspicions that it might be a Communist plot.
bulletThe town of Hancock, MD has refused for more than 20 years to declare a specific date for Halloween. Their rationale is that if they set a particular date and a child gets hurt during the trick-or-treating, then the town might be liable for damages.
bulletThe school board of Hillsborough NJ bans all religious celebrations in its schools. So, they have replaced Halloween with a "Fall Festival". St. Valentine's day has become "Special Person Day."
bulletIn many jurisdictions, Halloween is held on OCT-30 when OCT-31 falls on a Sunday. This is to avoid direct conflict between Halloween celebrations and church services.
bulletSome Evangelical Christian churches offer alternative methods of celebrating Halloween:
bulletSome urge their members to distribute Bible tracts along with or instead of candy treats.
bulletLight the Night is an Evangelical Christian outreach in which trick-or-treaters are invited into a home where they watch a puppet show. The theme is the Gospel, interpreted from a conservative Christian perspective. The sponsors note that Halloween night is "an excellent opportunity to take back ground in which the enemy has controlled for too long." (The webmaster clarified that the "enemy" here is  Satan) They say that by "...allowing our 'light' to shine on a very dark night, it is a very simple way to combat that darkness with the love of Christ." 10 As of mid-2002-OCT, the program has sold "Light the Night" kits to people in 146 cities in 25 states.
bulletOthers have "Trunk or Treat" parties in which members park their cars in the church parking lot, distribute treats from the trunks of their cars and invite the children into the church hall for a Christian party.
bulletOther congregations hold parties for their families. Costumes are allowed, but expected to be appropriate for a Christian environment. Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, CA, has been offering a Family Fun-Fest since the early 1990s. Each year they expect 5 to 10 thousand visitors who consume close to a half-ton of candy. 11
bulletVerbal attacks by conservative Christians appear to reach a peak at this time of year. They are often directed against followers of two very different groups of religious traditions: Wicca and other Neopagan faiths, and Satanism.  This form of religious hatred is often based on beliefs that can be traced back to religious propaganda during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when the Church actively burned tens of thousands of Witches, Pagans, and other heretics at the stake.
bulletA growing Halloween tradition among Evangelical Christians is to provide a type of horror tableau which promotes public awareness of conservative Christian concerns. In Arvida, CO, the Abundant Life Christian Center built a haunted house for Halloween 1997. It includes simulations of:
bulleta bloody abortion in progress,
bulleta ritual human sacrifice by a Satanic cult,
bulleta teen committing suicide,
bulletthe funeral of a homosexual AIDS victim, and
bulleta live action scene of a date rape.
bulletThe Home Sewing Association released its "Top Ten" list of costume ideas for the year 2001. They are:
  1. Wizards on the theme of Harry Potter -- the most popular; they were rated #6 in the year 2000.
  2. Witches. They were not among the top ten in 2000
  3. Rock stars (Britney Spears or J. Lo)
  4. Professional sports figures
  5. A uniform of your own
  6. Super heroes and action figures
  7. Historical figures (Henry VIII, Cleopatra)
  8. Vampy and Sultry (from the movie "Moulin Rouge")
  9. Western wear
  10. Animals

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Halloween in Mexico

In the fall, countless numbers of Monarch butterflies return to Mexico and the shelter of its oyamel fir trees. The beliefs of the Aztecs live on in many contemporary Mexicans who believe that the butterflies bear the spirits of their dead ancestors. It is these spirits that the people honor during "Los Dias de los Muertos" (The Days of the Dead). 4

It is a joyous, happy holiday - a time of remembering past friends and family who have died. It is celebrated, during Halloween, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, OCT-31 to NOV-2. Altars in the homes are decorated with bread, candy, fruit, and flowers. Candles are lit in memory of their ancestors. The people dress up as ghouls, ghosts, mummies and skeletons. They parade a live person in a coffin through the streets. Vendors toss fruit, flowers and candies into the coffin. Families visit the cemetery carrying tools to spruce up the graves and decorate them. They stay over-night.

American Halloween customs are gradually taking over this celebration.

Halloween in Other Countries

Halloween is celebrated outside of North America, particularly among American emigrants, but not to the extent that it is in the U.S. and Canada. 

In England, some of the customs of Samhain are seen on Guy Fawkes Night each NOV-5. The celebration is also known as Bonfire Night; "Bonfires burn in almost every street in England." 8 These are in memory of Guy Fawkes who attempted to blow up the House of Commons in London in 1605 CE. He died a gruesome death, imposed by the courts. "It was believed that the pope of the time was using the revolutionaries to restore Catholicism in Britain. Most bonfires burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes." One city, Lewes in East Sussex in southern England, still burns the Pope in effigy." In 1999, Jonathan Quinn, secretary of the Lewes Bonfire Council, told the Catholic Times that they were commemorating an historic event. They are not angry with Pope John Paul II. He commented that Roman Catholics in Leeds are not offended by the celebration. 8

Safety Considerations

Darkness, cars, drunk drivers, and children dressed in costumes with limited visibility can make a deadly combination. Harvard University's Police & Security Department have prepared a list of "Halloween Safety Tips for Kids." 5 The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has a list of "Halloween Tips." 6

The American Animal Hospital Association has a description of some of the hazards that this holiday can pose for family pets. 7

References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. AABYSS Marketing Inc. sells a 40-minute videotape, which describes Halloween customs in Costa Rica, Ireland, and Mexico. See: http://www.a-aabyss.com/
  2. Rowan Moonstone, "The Origins of Halloween". This essay has an extensive bibliography. See: http://aztec.lib.utk.edu/ (This is now offline)
  3. B.G. Walker, "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets," Harper & Row, (1983), Pages 48-50
  4. CLNet has a series of essays on the Mexican Holiday "Los Dias de Los Muertos" (The Days of the Dead) at: http://latino.sscnet.ucla.edu/research/
  5. "Halloween Safety Tips for Kids" is at: http://www.harvard.edu/
  6. "Halloween Tips" is at: http://www.babybag.com/cpsc/tip96194.htm (Offline)
  7. The American Animal Hospital Association's essay "Halloween & Dangers it Presents to Pets" is at: http://www.cyberpet.com/
  8. "Muslim condemns burning of Papal effigy," at: http://www.ewtn.com/
  9. L.S. Campbell, "Hallowe'en: a brief discussion of its origins and history," at: http://www.geocities.com/
  10. "Light the Night" has a web site at: http://www.lightthenightpa.com
  11. Steve Jordahl, "Alternative Halloween Celebrations Abound," Focus on the Family, 2002-OCT-14, at: http://www.family.org/
  12. Peter Smith, "By the Numbers," The Toronto Star, 2002-OCT-27.
  13. "How do you pronounce Samhain," Mystic Wicks, at: http://mysticwicks.com/

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Copyright © 1997 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2008-DEC-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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