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From communion with the dead to pumpkins and pranks, Halloween is a patchwork* holiday. Stitched together with cultural, religious and occult traditions that spanned centuries.
It all began with the Celts, a people whose culture had spread across Europe more than two thousand years ago. October 31st was the day they celebrated the end of the harvest season in a festival called Samhain (pronounced Sow-in). That night also marked the Celtic new year and was considered a time between years, a magical time when the ghost of the dead walked the earth.
It was the time when the veil between death and life was supposed to be at its thinnest.
On Samhain, the villagers gathered and lit huge bonfires to drive the dead back to the spirit world and keep them away from the living. But, as the catholic church’s influence grew in Europe, it frowned on the pagan rituals like Samhain. In the seventh century, the Vatican began to merge it with a church-sanctioned holiday. So, November 1st was designated All-Saints Day to honor martyrs and the deceased faithful.
Both of these holidays had to do with the afterlife and about survival after death. It was a calculated move on the part of the church to bring more people into the fold*.
All Saints’ Day was known then as Hallowmas. Hallow means holy or saintly, so the translation means roughly mass* of the saints. The night before, October 31st, was All Hallows’ Eve, which gradually morphed into Halloween.
The holiday came to America with the wave of Irish immigrants during the potato famine of the 1840s. They brought several of their holiday customs with them, including bobbing for apples and playing tricks on neighbors, like removing gates from the fronts of houses. The young pranksters wore masks, so they wouldn’t be recognized. But over the years, the tradition of harmless tricks grew into outright vandalism.
Back in the 1930s it really became a dangerous holiday. I mean, there was such hooliganism and vandalism. Trick or treating was originally an extortion deal. Give us candy, or we’ll trash your house. Storekeepers and neighbors began giving treats, or bribes, to stop the tricks, and children were encouraged to travel door to door as an alternative to troublemaking. By the late 30s, trick or treat became the holiday greeting.
*patchwork – pieced together like a patchwork quilt
*Bring more people into the fold – add more people to church membership
*mass – Catholic church meeting