Learning Halloween’s History Helped Me Hate It Less


PICTURE IT: Halloween 1990. My mother and I had been planning my costume for months. I was going to be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz — I had the blue-and-white-checked dress, the frilly ankle socks, the picnic basket, the stuffed Toto, and, best of all, handmade ruby red slippers. We had hunted for the perfect heels and spray-painted them red, then my mom spent most of the month of October using the hot glue gun to individually place each red sequin in beautiful rows on my magical shoes. They. were. PERFECT. It was the first year I wasn’t wearing a hand-me-down costume and I couldn’t wait for October 31st.

When Halloween arrived, it snowed.

Not just a little snow — enough snow to require a coat that hid any sign that I was Dorothy, save for my ruby red slippers. And then, sequin by red sequin, the snow took this part of my costume away, too, leaving a trail of Halloween magic behind me.

Halloween never really bounced back for me from there. In eighth grade, awkwardly dressed as hippie in ill-fitting bell bottoms (I would have been best suited to go as a skeleton that year, my body was so bony) and a massive orange wig, I got into an argument so terrible with my father that it’s still the first thing I think of when I hear the word “Halloween.” In college, a frat guy puked on me and my fairy dress slipped down causing me to flash an entire bar.

Eventually, I turned into the mean old person I despised when I was little and went trick-or-treating — I turned off all the lights in my apartment and ignored the doorbell on Halloween.

This year, determined to let go of some bad memories and childhood grudges, I decided to do the only thing I could think of to make myself like Halloween: research it. (Yes, that’s how I get my kicks. Blame it on my mother putting the Encyclopedia Britannica in easy reach and the television just out of it while I was growing up.) Here’s what I learned:

Halloween had its beginning in an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival. The Celtic people divided the year by four major holidays and their year began on a day corresponding to November 1st on our present day calendar. The festival they observed on the eve of November 1st was called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween) and it was the biggest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year. They believed that Samhaim, more than any other time of year, was when the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living. They also believed that the souls who had died during the year used this time to travel into the Otherworld. The Celts gathered together to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables and light bonfires in honor of the dead to aid them on their journey (everyone needs a nightlight!) and to keep them away from the living. The Celts were not afraid of the spirits, just helping them on their way so they didn’t have a chance to get scary.

A really nice festival to celebrate and honor the dead, if you ask me.

Don’t bother asking Kirk Cameron. In an interview with The Christian Post he states that “The real origins [of Halloween] have a lot to do with All Saints’ Day and All Hallows’ Eve.” In facts not from former childhood stars, the real origins of Halloween began well before the Christian missionaries came in. As with most occasions, when Christians showed up, they attempted to change things. And, by change things, I mean wipe out every “pagan” holiday and tradition and then adopt some pieces of it as their own. I’ll give the Christians props for their craftiness with this, though.

In 601 A.D., Pope Gregory the First issued an edict to his missionaries concerning the beliefs and customs of the native peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to wipe out their customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to dedicate it to Christ and allow its continued worship. It was actually an exceedingly clever way to subtly coerce the Celtic people into the ways of Christianity. Celtic belief in supernatural creatures persisted even as the Christians tried to portray them as being dangerous and malicious, and followers of the old religion went into hiding and were branded as witches. With Samhain, Christians branded the Celts’ supernatural deities as evil and associated them with the devil, and their Otherworld became identified as the Christian Hell.

Then, the old Christian holiday switcheroo!

The Christian feast of All Saints’, the day honoring Christians saints, was assigned to November 1st.

The old beliefs associated with November 1st and Samhain still did not die out easily or entirely, though. Christian attempt number two at establishing religious dominance: November 2nd becoming All Souls’ Day. The traditional beliefs and customs lived on (Go Celts!). All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows’ Eve, continued the ancient Celtic traditions by acknowledging the day before November 1st as an intense period for supernatural activity. The Christian Church permitted celebrating All Hallows’ Eve as a time of the wandering dead, preserving some of the original early November traditions, but now the supernatural were thought to be evil, rather than just passing through. Other traditions persisted as well, like setting out gifts of food and drink, leading to what is today’s trick-or-treating. It turns out that most Halloween customs, including bobbing for apples, drinking spiced cider, and wearing costumes, dated back to the original harvest holiday of Samhain.

The deep history of the holiday made me appreciate Halloween for what it is behind today’s elaborate costumes and pumpkin carving — a releasing and letting go of things that have passed, and sending them on graciously. Whatever you believe in, that seems like a custom worth embracing. Maybe I’ll even buy candy and answer the door this year…

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