Halloween costumes and trick-or-treating are typical to the celebration of Halloween today, but that is not what this holiday has always been about. Children dressing up in costumes and going door to door expecting a special treat didn't come about until quite recently.
The Celtic people, who lived more than 2000 years ago feared the evening of Oct. 31 more than any other day of the year. It was the eve of their festival of Samhain. Samhain was a joyful harvest festival that marked the death of the old year and the beginning of a new one. The day itself was a time for paying homage to the sun god Baal who had provided the people with the ripened grain for use in the upcoming winter. Come evening evil spirits were everywhere. Charms and spells were said to have more power on the eve of Samhain. Several rituals were performed by the Celtic priests, Druids, to appease the Lord of the Dead.
Christianity was born, and grew strong until in the fourth century after Christ, the Roman Empire Constantine declared it lawful. Within the Roman Empire, the Christian Fathers tried their hardest to stamp out all things pagan, which is what they named the older religions. However, the Celts held firmly to their Druid customs. So, the Christian church gave them new meanings and new names, and told the people that the fire rites they had previously held for the Lord of the Dead on Oct. 31 would now protect them from the Devil, the enemy of God. In the 7th century the church celebrated All Saint's Day in May, but by the 9th century the date had been changed to Nov. 1st. The original festival for the pagan Lord of the Dead became a festival of Christian dead. People went on expecting the arrival of ghosts on Oct. 31st. Another name for All Saint's Day was All Hallows' Even which was later shortened to Halloween. In the 10th century the church named Nov. 2nd as All Souls' Day in memory of all dead souls. Halloween, All Saints' Day, and All Souls' Day come so close together and are so similar that in some countries they tend to merge together.
The witch is a central symbol of Halloween. The name comes from the Saxon wica, meaning wise one. When setting out for a Sabbath, witches rubbed a sacred ointment onto their skin. This gave them a feeling of flying, and if they had been fasting they felt even giddier. Some witches rode on horseback, but poor witches went on foot and carried a broom or a pole to aid in vaulting over streams. In England when new witches was initiated they were often blindfolded, smeared with flying ointment and placed on a broomstick. The ointment would confuse the mind, speed up the pulse and numb the feet. When they were told "You are flying over land and sea," the witch took their word for it.
An Irish myth tells of a drunk named Stingy Jack, who one day invited the Devil to have a drink. He convinced the Devil to change into a sixpence in order to pay for the drink, but instead of paying for the drink he pocketed the sixpence beside a silver cross which prevented the Devil from changing back. Jack made a deal with the Devil before letting him free. For one year the Devil could not harrass Jack. Next Halloween the Devil met Jack again, and he tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree for an apple but then cut the sign of a cross into the trunk of the tree preventing the devil from coming down. Jack forced the devil to swear he would never come after Jack's soul. The devil reluctantly agreed. And so Jack was left alone. Jack died within the year and was turned back from the Gates of Heaven because of his stingyness and drunkedness. He went to the Gates of Hell and the Devil told him to go away, as Jack had made him promise not to claim his soul. Jack didn't want to leave because it was dark and he couldn't find his way. The Devil tossed Jack a glowing coal and Jack put it inside a turnip, and ever since with this Jack-O'-Lantern, Jack has been roaming the faces of this earth.
Scottish children hollow out and carve large turnips and put candles in them. Irish children use turnips or potatoes. In parts of England they use large beets. When the Scotch and the Irish came to the US they found pumpkins, which of course make a perfect Jack-O'-Lantern.
From earliest times people wore masks when droughts or other disasters struck. They believed that the demons who had brought their misfortune upon them would become frightened off by the hideous masks. Even after the festival of Samhain had merged with Halloween, Europeans felt uneasy at this time of the year. Food was stored in preparation for the winter and the house was snug and warm. The cold, envious ghosts were outside, and people who went out after dark often wore masks and animal skins to keep from being recognized. Now, just by chance if you had forgotten to dress up or could not fool the evil spirits by dressing in animal skins or other disguises, there was another way to avoid them. People set out a TREAT of food and fruit, and provide the wandering spirit with shelter for the night. If the demon spirit was satisfied with your TREAT, it was believed that he would not TRICK you by casting a spell on you.
Until very recently children would dress up as
ghosts and goblins to scare the neighbors, but there was
no trick or treating. Around 40 years ago people began to
offer treats to their costumed visitors. And that is the origin of trick-or-treating.
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