Why We Celebrate Halloween
By Sam Schwartz
It’s Halloween today, and soon the streets of Edmonds will flood with small children decked out as every form of Disney princess, medieval warrior, wailing ghoul, and mythological creature imaginable. But where did the tradition come from, and why do they ask for candy?
The holiday has its origins in the Ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts believed that as the summer waned, the barrier between the land of the living and the dead got thinner, allowing the souls of the dead to drift through. To frighten these returned deceased, the Celts would disguise themselves as evil spirits, and if that didn’t work, they’d attempt to appease them with treats and snacks.
The Celts didn’t last forever, though, and their territory was gobbled up by the ever-expanding and ever-culture-dominating Roman empire. Fairly quickly, the Romans consolidated Samhain with two of their own festivals, one being Feralia, a Roman holiday to honor the dead, and the second being a celebration of the Roman Goddess Pomona, says Regina Hansen, a Boston University Professor of Rhetoric and expert on the portrayal of the supernatural in literature and film. According to Hansen, the Roman celebration of Pomona—a goddess of trees and fruit—gifted the evolving holiday with one of its most quirky traditions: bobbing for apples.
After the rise of Catholicism, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Roman pantheon in honor of all dead martyrs. Later, Pope Gregory expanded the dedication to all dead saints and made the official day of celebration November 1. In 1000 AD, the church recognized November 2 as All Souls’ Day in an effort to shoulder out the old, fun, but still pagan-flavoured Samhain holiday.
During the middle ages, this day saw the addition of trick or treating, perhaps Halloween’s best advertised feature. Originally, children and even poor adults would go from door to door on All Souls’ Day asking for candy—or more accurately pastries called soul cakes. These children, soulers as they were called, weren’t threatening property damage, though. No one’s house was egged. Instead, they were offering prayers and songs for the dead in reciprocation for being fed.
Halloween came to America somewhat timidly. The highly protestant and very religiously rigid north wasn’t exactly eager to embrace a holiday that still smacked of paganism, so Halloween saw most of its celebration in Catholic Maryland and the south.
The name “Halloween” came itself from a poem titled, very creatively, Halloween, which was written by the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns. The title is simply a combination of hallow, another word for saint, and een, a contraction of eve, or the-night-before.
The day wasn’t cemented in the American conscience, though, until the 1850s, when the nation saw millions of Irish men and women immigrate to America, fleeing the potato famine ravaging their native lands. With them, they brought all of the traditions of that Samhain-ish holiday that had managed to hold on in Irish society, replete with its dressing up in costumes. They also introduced the jack-o-lantern, originally meaning Jack of the lantern and supposedly representing the carved gourd carried by a man named Jack who had been cursed to walk the earth forever, carrying a squash with a candle in it as his only light source.
After that, the holiday slowly adopted parties for adults and candy for children, especially as the American industrial complex became more capable of producing massive amounts of the sugary treats for the occasion.
So go celebrate Halloween, and thank the Celts for the costumes, the Irish for the pumpkins, the Romans for the apples, the Scottish for the name, the British for the door-to-door, and the Americans for the sweets.
*Disney’s full corporate name is The Walt Disney Co.