The History Behind Halloween

While Halloween is now seen as a chance to wear fun costumes and collect candy, you can add more to your celebrations by sharing the amazing facts about the history behind Halloween with children and adults.

Samhain and Halloween

Halloween history traces back to a period about 800 years before the birth of Christ. The Celts celebrated Halloween's progenitor, under the name Samhain. Samhain was actually a ritual to mark the end of the year. The Celtic celebration was more akin to partying on New Year's Eve, only their calendar year began on Nov. 1. How Samhain evolved into Halloween instead of being adopted as a year-end festival has to do with the more metaphysical aspects the Celts associated with the day.

When looking at history, we see many similarities between Samhain and Halloween. Samhain was not just a celebratory occasion; it also represented to the Celts that day in which the barrier separating earthly existence from the afterworld broke down, allowing the dead to return to life in the physical vessel of an animal, such as a black cat.

Another parallel between Samhain and Halloween to take into consideration was the custom of villagers going around to collect food to offer to the gods, a clear precursor to trick-or-treating. These revelers would construct an enormous bonfire made of burnt embers from their own home fires. To ward off evil spirits as they made their way through the darkness toward the bonfire, they dressed in costumes and would use gourds, on which were carved frightening faces, to carry their burning embers.

Christianity and Halloween

Halloween history took its first twist with the introduction of Christianity. Pagan holidays were transformed into Christian holidays, commencing with the creation of All Saints' Day. All Saints' Day was initiated to turn the feasting and celebration away from worshipping pagan gods and toward honoring Catholic saints. Although originally celebrated in May, it was eventually moved to the first of November to dismantle Samhain observances.

Over the centuries, the ancient rites of Samhain became conflated with Catholic rituals, Irish folk tales and superstitions. For instance, that gourd with the carved face would over time be reinvented as the jack-o'-lantern.

Dark Times

The first revolt against the holiday occurred in the 1920s. Halloween night had become more dedicated to tricking than treating for some, and the number of violent and mean-spirited acts of vandalism began to increase at an alarming rate. Tricks of a relatively harmless nature had been part of Halloween for centuries and were typified by soaping windows and knocking over outhouses. The 20th century introduced a new breed of trickery that included cruelty to both animals and people and wanton destruction of private property.

The 20th Century

An organized movement to reclaim the holiday for children was launched, and the next five decades may well be considered the high point of Halloween history as a holiday set aside almost exclusively for kids. This was the period that saw nearly every homeowner in the country greeted by kids dressed up as ghosts or witches or scarecrows demanding candy.

The beginning of the end of this period started in the late 1960s, when the first rumors that some kids were receiving candy tainted with LSD began to circulate. Throughout the 1970s the danger associated with the holiday switched from candy corrupted with drugs to candy and fruits containing poison or razor blades. Although not a single fatality was ever recorded as the result of these rumors, and there are only a handful of substantiated occurrences, the perception of the holiday had been damaged.

Halloween Today

Today's Halloween is no longer just for kids and has become bigger than ever. It is now acceptable for adults to dress up and party. Today's Halloween will be remembered as a holiday not reserved for kids but for kids of all ages. Whereas the 20th century was marked by tiny little vampires going up to neighborhood houses, no 21st century experience would be complete without a visit to a truly terrifying haunted house containing Hollywood-level special effects.

Halloween history has remained remarkably consistent for almost 3,000 years. While the focus has shifted from adults to children and back to adults, and while the ritual activities have changed in both practice and meaning, neither the real or imaginary darker aspects of the holiday have been enough to obstruct its route toward becoming the second most popular holiday of the year.

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