Halloween is here, and millions of people are busy preparing their scariest/most revealing costumes for a night of devilish debauchery. But… why? Why do kids ‘trick-or-treat’? But why do we carve pumpkins? Why do apparently rational adults choose to dress up as sexy crayons?
When you think about it, our Halloween traditions are all pretty weird, and its origins are even weirder. This family-friendly extravaganza is its own Frankenstein’s monster – cobbled together from ancient Gaelic festivals and Native American death rites, with a healthy dose of colonialism thrown in for good measure. So, before you leave the land of the living, get to know the real origins of this most frightful of holidays
Halloween, the Early Years
The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the Gaelic Samhain festival, which took place in Ireland and Scotland over 2000 years ago. The original Pagans believed that when the seasons changed, the boundaries between the living world and the afterlife became looser, and rogue spirits would temporarily roam the earth.
The Pagans were a superstitious bunch, and would ‘hide in plain sight’ by disguising themselves as the undead. Likewise, they would leave food on their doorsteps to appease any frightful ne’er do wells who may be passing by – the origins of today’s Halloween costumes and trick-or-treating.
Samhain continued in various forms as Christianity began to spread across the world, ‘borrowing’ many Pagan traditions as it went. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III made it official, and established the first All Saints’ Day on the 1st of November. This celebration of all things saintly was also known as ‘All Hallows Day’, making the day before ‘All Hallows Eve’.
A Church-Sanctioned Pagan Festival
Convenient as this may seem, this was likely a political move, intended to replace these ancient Celtic rites with a more respectable Church-sanctioned holiday. As we know, the Christian church is anything if not persistent, and All Hallows Eve was here to stay. With the ‘discovery’/brutal colonization of the Americas, European holidays meshed with Native America’s undead-oriented traditions, and Halloween as we know it began to take shape.
It was still a celebration of the changing seasons, but the Pagans and Native Americans alike associated this period with fortune-telling, usually in relation to life’s two great pillars – death and marriage. The link to death should be fairly self-explanatory, but divination of all kinds has always focused on fertility and partnership. This was before Tinder, after all.
Naturally, the opportunity to wear masks and liaise with mischievous spirits meant that the holiday became associated with malicious pranks and widespread vandalism. There were various attempts throughout the 19th century to strip away the more grotesque elements, but it was only with the 1950s baby boom that celebrations shifted into the classroom and became more family-friendly. Trick-or-treating was now officially endorsed as a means of keeping kids out of trouble. Weirdly, this state-sanctioned begging can be traced back to the medieval practice of ‘souling’, when masked ‘soulers’ would go door-to-door begging rich families for ‘soulcakes’ in exchange for prayers. Basically the same thing as, “give me candy or I’ll put a brick through your window,” right?
Often, they would carry a lamp made from a candle inside a hollowed-out turnip – supposedly representing a soul trapped in purgatory. As All Hallows Eve shifted to America, people began to use pumpkins as they were more plentiful in the States, and much easier to carve. And, just like that, the iconic orange jack o’lantern was born.
Sex, Death, and Diabetes
So there we have it, Halloween is the bastard child of sacred Pagan rituals and the meddling of the Catholic Church, filtered through the American tradition of sheltering children from anything remotely rebellious.Still, whether it’s healthier for a child to indulge in some harmless mischief or dress up as a ‘sexy’ Donald Trump is yet to be determined…