Halloween is a festival that takes place on October 31. In the United States, children wear costumes on Halloween and go trick-or-treating. Many carve jack-o'-lanterns out of pumpkins. Halloween parties feature such activities as fortunetelling, storytelling about ghosts and witches, and bobbing for apples.

Halloween developed from ancient new year festivals and festivals of the dead. In the A.D. 800's, the Christian church established All Saints' Day on November 1 so that people could continue a festival they had celebrated before becoming Christians. The Mass said on All Saints' Day was called Allhallowmas. The evening before All Saints' Day became known as All Hallows' Eve, or All Hallow e'en. The Celtic festival of Samhain is probably the source of the present-day Halloween celebration. The Celts lived more than 2,000 years ago in what is now the United Kingdom, Ireland, and northern France. Their new year began on November 1. A festival that began the previous evening honored Samhain, the Celtic lord of death. The celebration marked the beginning of the season of cold, darkness, and decay. It naturally became associated with human death. The Celts believed that Samhain allowed the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes for this evening.

On the evening of the festival, the Druids, who were the priests and teachers of the Celts, ordered the people to put out their hearth fires. The Druids built a huge new year's bonfire of oak branches, which they considered sacred. They burned animals, crops, and possibly even human beings as sacrifices. Then each family relit its hearth fire from the new year's fire. During the celebration, people sometimes wore costumes made of animal heads and skins. They told fortunes about the coming year by examining the remains of the animals that had been sacrificed.

The Romans began the conquest of the Celts in A.D. 43 and ruled much of what is now the United Kingdom for about 400 years. During this period, two Roman autumn festivals were combined with the Celtic festival of Samhain. One of them, called Feralia, was held in late October to honor the dead. The other festival honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Apples probably became associated with Halloween because of this festival.

Many of the customs of the Celts survived even after the people became Christians. During the 800's, the church established All Saints' Day on November 1. The people made the old pagan customs part of this Christian holy day. The Catholic church later began to honor the dead on November 2. This day became known as All Souls' Day.

Regional Halloween customs developed among various groups of Celts. In Ireland, for example, people begged for food in a parade that honored Muck Olla, a god. The leader of the parade wore a white robe and a mask made from the head of an animal. In Scotland, people paraded through fields and villages carrying torches. They lit huge bonfires on hillsides to drive away witches and other evil spirits. In Wales, every person marked a stone and put it into a bonfire. The people believed that if a person's stone was missing the next morning, he or she would die within a year.

In England, Halloween was sometimes called Nutcrack Night or Snap Apple Night. Families sat by the fire and told stories while they ate apples and nuts. On All Souls' Day, poor people went a-souling (begging). They received pastries called soulcakes in exchange for promising to say prayers for the dead.

Many early American settlers came from England and other Celtic regions, and they brought various customs with them. But because of the strict religious beliefs of other settlers, Halloween celebrations did not become popular until the 1800's. During that period, large numbers of immigrants arrived from Ireland and Scotland and introduced their Halloween customs.

During the mid-1900's, trick-or-treating became less popular in large cities, where many neighbors did not know one another. Halloween pranks, which had once been harmless, sometimes became rowdy and destructive. Traffic accidents also became a major problem on Halloween. As a result, family parties and large community celebrations gained popularity. Today, many communities sponsor bonfires, costume parades, dances, skits, and other forms of entertainment to celebrate Halloween.

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