Midlothian Messenger

The Origins of Halloween Explained

A Jack-O-Lantern.

Photographed by http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Halloween.JPG

A Jack-O-Lantern.

Written by Larissa Randall, Staff Writer

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Halloween, a widely recognized holiday where children dress up in costumes and go door to door asking strangers for candy using the well known phrase: “Trick-or-Treat.” Sort of a strange custom if you really think about it, but where did it begin? Halloween is not a Christian holiday, though it was adopted by the Christians, much like Christmas was, in an attempt to help the pagans more easily conform to Christian beliefs.

The original Pagan celebration was called Samhain, which the Christian church changed to All Saints Day, both of which were observed on October 31. The Pagans believed that the spirits of the dead would return to earth on this day, when the veil between the dead and the living was thought to be thinnest.

The children of the largest town in Bonaire gather together on Halloween day.

Photographed by Halibut Thyme
The children of the largest town in Bonaire gather together on Halloween day.

The Pagans would dress in costumes and light bonfires in an attempt to ward off these offending spirits, who were known to cause mayhem and trouble wherever they went. It was also thought to be the most favorable time for divination – predicting the future. The Druids, priests of the Celts [Pagans], believed that the presence of these spirits made it easier to predict the future, which was an important source of information to the Celts with the long winter to come.

Over the years, the newly adopted Christian “All Saints Day” has become a commercial holiday that everyone could participate in. Many customs from the original Pagan holiday were either lost or changed such as the Jack-o-lanterns, for instance. This tradition may have originated from the witches use of skulls, each with a candle inside to light the way to coven meetings, but the more popular Irish myth of Jack may better fit the current custom.

The legend says that a man named Jack, a drunk as he was well known, tricked the devil into an apple tree, and after carving a cross in the trunk so that the evil could not get down, forced to devil to promise that he would not take his soul. The devil eventually agreed. However, when Jack eventually died, he was turned away from the gates of heaven due to his drunkenness. When he went to the devil, he was turned away as well, due to the devil keeping his promise, leaving Jack to wander the earth for eternity.

As Jack was leaving, legend says that the devil threw a live coal at Jack (who was eating a turnip at the time). The coal lodged itself inside the turnip, and Jack was left to wander the earth, forever looking for a place to rest, with his “Jack-o-lantern” in tow, lighting his way. Turnips were eventually replace with pumpkins as the devils coal was more easily represented by a candle set inside a carved pumpkin.

Trick-or-treating, yet another common practice on Halloween came about in the middle ages, when poor children or adults would dress up and go door to door begging for food or handouts in exchange for song or prayer. This was called “Souling,” and the children who performed this were called “Soulers.” A common handout in these situations was what was known as a “Soul Cake.” This was most often a small, round cake, sometimes with a cross carved into the top of it. These cakes were meant to represent souls that were being freed from purgatory when it was eaten.

The practice of Souling eventually gave way to the practice of “Guising” in the United Kingdom. Guising was much like Souling in that children would dress up in costumes and go door to door asking for food or money. In exchange for these tokens, the children would often tell jokes, sing songs, or perform in some way. The only real difference between the two traditions was that a performance was offered in exchange for tokens, rather than prayer.

Trick-or-treating popped up in North America in the late 1920’s. The phrase and the accompanying tradition caught fire and spread around the world, giving birth to the widely acknowledged and practiced tradition we know today.

While the Christians may have changed and reformed most of the traditions common to Halloween, their origins in Paganism give a new light to Halloween that many people are unaware of. When the holiday was first coined, many Christians objected and refused to participate, but, as the holiday evolved, the churches objections lessened and Halloween became the widely commercialized, acknowledged, and well loved holiday that is practiced today.

 

 

 

 

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The Origins of Halloween Explained