Halloween, A History

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

Halloween is the spookiest night of the year, people around the world celebrate the holiday in many different ways. The word 'Halloween' was first popularized in a poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1785. A lot of these customs date back centuries, but the holiday has changed over time along with its traditions to the “Halloweeen” we love today.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the name itself come from two words smushed together. "Hallow" — or holy person — refers to the saints celebrated on All Saints' Day, which is November 1. The "een" part of the word is a contraction of "eve" — or evening before. So basically, Halloween is just an old-fashioned way of saying "the night before All Saints' Day" — also called Hallowmas or All Hallows' Day. This comes from the fact November 1 is All Saints' Day, a Catholic feast dedicated to celebrating the faithful departed, including all the saints. In Catholic tradition, people start celebrating major feasts the night before they take place — take Christmas Eve, for instance.

Historians have linked Halloween to Samhain, the Celtic festival of the summer's end celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. According to Celtic mythology, the veil between the Otherworld and our world thins during Samhain, making it easier for spirits and the souls of the dead to return. People would make offerings of food in order to get on the good side of these spirits and departed ancestors. All hallow tide, which includes All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and the subsequent All Souls' Day, was initially celebrated in the spring, during the early years of the Church. Pope Gregory IV switched it to the current date in 837.

Halloween has come to be most closely associated with the pumpkin, but apples have played an important role in its history. Bobbing for apples remains a popular party game because the practice used to be considered a form of divination performed around Halloween. People would dunk their heads in a vat of water and try to bite into floating fruit in a quest to figure out their future spouse. Ladies would mark an apple and toss it into the tub. The thinking was they'd be destined to whoever pulled it out of the water.

Modern day jack-o'-lanterns are intricately designed pumpkin decorations.

Apparently, one night, a local drunkard named Jack trapped the Prince of Darkness in a tree by hacking a sign of the cross into the bark. In exchange for letting Satan climb down, Jack had him vow to never claim his soul.

Jack proceeded to act like a jerk his whole life. When he died, he was not allowed in heaven, so jack tried to return to the Devil. But Satan upheld his end of the deal, hurling a piece of coal from hell at the dead man. Jack placed the blazing coal in a turnip to use as a lantern. He then set out, as a dead man doomed to wander until he can find an eternal resting place.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, ancient Celts dressed up as evil spirits in order to confuse demons. In medieval England, "soulers" would go around begging rich folk for "soul cakes" on Halloween. Instead of threatening to play tricks, however, they'd pray for peoples' souls in return for the cake. Throughout medieval Europe, dressing in disguises and visiting neighborhoods while dancing, playing music, and doing tricks, was popular on major feast days.

TIME reported Irish and Scottish immigrants brought "souling" to the States in the 1800s. But modern day trick-or-treating didn't catch on in the US until the 1920s. The practice was pretty controversial into the 1950s, though. Many adults raised "stern objections" to trick-or-treating over the decades, as it was viewed as a form of extortion.

The "Bloody Mary" ritual, also known as "Mary Worth" and "Mary Whales” include the elements of a girl peering into a mirror (often in a dark bathroom), blood, chanting, and the appearance of the cursed "Mary." Black cats have been associated with the supernatural for hundreds of years. In the Middle Ages, black cats were often portrayed as pets of witches, which they are regarded in America with distrust. Early Puritan settlers rejected anything associated with the Devil and witches. It was also believed that witches transformed into black cats to conceal themselves.

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