Trick or treating, pumpkins and scary costumes are the hallmarks of Halloween, but why do we celebrate it, and where did it come from? Surprisingly, this holiday’s history can be traced back to the early Catholic Church. According to Angelo Stagnaro in “U.S. Christian,” Nov. 1 is All Saints Day on the Christian calendar–also called All Hallows’ Day. The word “Halloween” is an abbreviated form of the phrase “All Hallows’ Eve,” which is the vigil celebration the night before the day of feasting on Nov. 1.
All Saints Day, moved to Nov. 1 in 731 C.E., was a day to commemorate martyrs in the early fourth century, but eventually, all of the saints were included in this festival. On All Souls Day, added to the Christian calendar on 998 C.E. and observed on the third day of Hallowmas, was a day to remember departed souls that weren’t officially deemed saints. It was believed that a day of prayer would help cleanse the souls of those who were still in Purgatory, so they could gain entrance into Heaven (after the Reformation in the 16th century, prayer was no longer officially necessary to ease a soul into Heaven). All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints Day and All Souls Day is apart of Hallowmas, which is also known as the Triduum of All Saints. According to Stagnaro, Halloween was originally “a spiritual preparation for the two more important days following it.”
The practice of dressing up in costumes for All Souls Day traces back to France during the 14th and 15th centuries. When a Black Death (a.k.a. the Bubonic Plague) epidemic struck a community, artists would often illustrate the Danse Macabre, “Dance of Death,” on cemetery walls and coffins. The images displayed the devil or a personification of Death directing the recently departed into a tomb. Reenactments of the Danse Macabre became a custom in France on All Souls Day. It was believed that the demons who wandered at night would mistake the masked revelers as another demon and move on to a place free of other demons.
Stagnaro denies the pagan origins of this holiday, for it has been said by many that Halloween was originally an adaptation to the Celtic harvest holiday, Samhain, that fell on Oct. 31. The Celts, an ancient culture in Europe that was overran by the Romans and various Germanic peoples, celebrated festivals on the last day of almost every month of the year. Stagnaro asserts that it doesn’t make sense for the Catholic Church to pick Samhain as the model for All Hallows’ Eve because it would skip over all other pagan tribes and their holidays, for only Irish pagans celebrated Samhain.
Taking the opposing view, Maggie Black states in “History Today” that Hallowmas was inspired by Samhain. Black states that on the eve of Samhain, the Celts believed that the deceased, along with the “spirits of evil at their most potent,” would roam the planet for a night and day. Fires burned on every hilltop, noisy games were played, herbal ale was drunk, ceremonial dancing and carousing commenced, and divination rituals were performed. Black explains that when Christians adapted Samhain, they continued the belief in the rising dead, so young adults, and later children, donned hideous masks to deter the walking dead and went door to door asking for money for food.
Stagnaro and Black both acknowledge Guy Fawkes Day’s role in the development of Halloween. However, only Stagnaro elaborates on that fact. Observed on Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes Day commemorates the unsuccessful Catholic attempt to blow up the British parliament and overthrow King James I’s government in 1605. Masked children would beg “a penny for the Guy,” who watched over the gunpowder intended for the revolution (the movie “V for Vendetta” with Natalie Portman is heavily inspired by Guy Fawkes). On this holiday, adult carousers would demand beer and cakes. As Stagnaro points out, “The custom of dressing in masquerade and asking for small presents migrated easily to All Hallows’ Eve.”
To get your trick or treat on, check out Lincoln Ave., where Alex G. Spanos lives (who is rumored to give out full candy bars). Lincoln Village West, which is the neighborhood around Spanos’ house, is known for its spectacular Christmas light display, so it is safe to assume many of those households will partake in giving out candy on Halloween as well. The area called Venetian Bridges, which begins around McGaw St. and Rosemary Lane, includes houses with magnificent Halloween decorations (one house has a colossal furry spider on it)! Brookside, a neighborhood off of March Lane for those who are well-off, is sure to have candy and spooky decorations!
Regardless of the exact origin of Halloween, it is here to stay in America, and the pleasure of dressing up and enjoying tasty food and drink has delighted children, and adults, for centuries. Hope you have a Happy (and safe) Halloween!
Latest posts by Nicole Felkins (see all)
- Tigers get gypped by NCAA selection committee - May 9, 2015
- Grass, buildings, dorms? Where our tuition is going - May 9, 2015
- Faculty Mentor Awards - May 9, 2015