Halloween’s origins date back to an ancient agricultural festival celebrating the new year. The so-called “Celts” – simply a Greek word meaning “barbarians” – lived in an area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and portions of France and Spain; they celebrated their new year Nov. 1.
The day marked the end of summer harvest and the onset of winter, so that time of year was often associated with death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became thin. It was believed ghosts of the dead penetrated that thin wall Oct. 31 to visit the world of the living.
Christian missionaries and the Catholic Church later changed the celebration to All Souls Day, Nov. 2, and All Saints Day, Nov. 1. The evening before became “All Hallowed Eve” or Hallow-e'en. The idea of living and dead commingling continued -- explaining the “presence” of ghosts for Halloween – so say historians of the tradition.
Those spirits could create trouble or damage crops. The Druids – priests of the old religion – comforted people as they faced the coming winter, providing direction and prophecies for the long dark time ahead. That might explain some of the predictive superstitions associated with Halloween – black cats bringing bad luck and others.
To commemorate the new year Druids built sacred bonfires, where people gathered to burn crops and sacrifice animals. As the sun set individual fires were extinguished. During the celebration people wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins. They may have believed they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone by ghosts. That explains in part our ongoing fascination with Halloween costumes. At the end of the celebration people would light their own fires from the sacred bonfire to start the new year.
One-fourth of all candy sold annually in the United States is purchased for Halloween. That candy tradition goes back to pagan times. Ghosts or spirits of the living dead could be pacified and would leave a home alone if candy was left on the doorstep. Another way to scare off evil spirits was to carve frightening faces into gourds – beginning the jack-o-lantern tradition.
Other researchers speculate that Halloween’s candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of “guising” – a secular version of “souling.” In the Middle Ages soulers – usually kids and poor adults – would visit homes to collect food or funds in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls Day. Guisers later discontinued prayers in favor of nonreligious “tricks” such as jokes or songs.
A third explanation ties modern trick-or-treating to “belsnickling.” In that German-American tradition children would dress in costume and then visit their neighbors to see who could guess the identity of each disguised visitor. In one version of that practice the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them.
Going door-to-door for handouts is a long-held Halloween tradition. But only after the 1950s did the “treats” kids received revolve mostly around candy. Before 1950 toys, coins, fruit and nuts were just as likely to be given. The one popular exception was candy corn, which became Halloween-specific in the 1950s in the United States.
The increase in trick-or-treating for candy was driven by candy-company marketing campaigns to encourage the sale of individually wrapped sweets. People obliged out of convenience but such candy didn’t replace most other treats until the 1970s, when parents began fearing anything unwrapped.
Apple-bobbing is an old Roman tradition. When Rome conquered most of Britain, from 43 AD onward, festivals of Roman origin were merged with local traditions. One such festival honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple – and so bobbing for apples became part of Halloween.
May everyone capture all the ghouls, costumes, candy and apples that the hallowed tradition offers. But also remember to honor All Saints Day and All Souls Day during the next two days.