Origin of name
Trick-or-treating and guising
Games and other activities
Around the world
Halloween is a holiday celebrated on October 31. It has roots in the
Celtic festival of Samhain and the Christian holy day of All Saints. It
is largely a secular celebration, but some Christians and pagans have
expressed strong feelings about its religious overtones. Irish
immigrants carried versions of the tradition to North America during
Ireland’s Great Famine of 1846. The day is often associated with the
colors orange and black, and is strongly associated with symbols such as
the jack-o’-lantern. Halloween activities include trick-or-treating,
ghost tours, bonfires, costume parties, visiting haunted attractions,
carving jack-o’-lanterns, reading scary stories, and watching horror
Halloween has origins in the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain;
from the Old Irish samain, possibly derived from Gaulish samonios). The
festival of Samhain is a celebration of the end of the harvest season in
Gaelic culture, and is sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year”.
Traditionally, the festival was a time used by the ancient Celtic pagans
to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. The
ancient Celts believed that on October 31, now known as Halloween, the
boundary between the living and the deceased dissolved, and the dead
become dangerous for the living by causing problems such as sickness or
damaged crops. The festivals would frequently involve bonfires, into
which the bones of slaughtered livestock were thrown. Costumes and masks
were also worn at the festivals in an attempt to copy the evil spirits
or placate them.
Origin of name
The term Halloween is shortened from All Hallows Eve (both “even” and
“eve” are abbreviations of “evening,” but “Halloween” gets its “n” from
“even”) as it is the eve of “All Hallows’ Day”, which is now also known
as All Saints’ Day. It was a day of religious festivities in various
northern European pagan traditions, until Popes Gregory III and Gregory
IV moved the old Christian feast of All Saints’ Day from May 13 (which
had itself been the date of a pagan holiday, the Feast of the Lemures)
to November 1. In the 9th century, the Church measured the day as
starting at sunset, in accordance with the Florentine calendar. Although
All Saints’ Day is now considered to occur one day after Halloween, the
two holidays were, at that time, celebrated on the same day.
On Hallows’ eve, the ancient Celts would place a skeleton on their
window sill to represent the departed. Originating in Europe, these
lanterns were first carved from a turnip or rutabaga. Believing that the
head was the most powerful part of the body, containing the spirit and
the knowledge, the Celts used the “head” of the vegetable to frighten
off any superstitions. Welsh, Irish and British myth are full of legends
of the Brazen Head, which may be a folk memory of the widespread ancient
Celtic practice of headhunting – the results of which were often nailed
to a door lintel or brought to the fireside to speak their wisdom. The
name jack-o’-lantern can be traced back to the Irish legend of Stingy
Jack, a greedy, gambling, hard-drinking old farmer. He tricked the devil
into climbing a tree and trapped him by carving a cross into the tree
trunk. In revenge, the devil placed a curse on Jack, condemning him to
forever wander the earth at night with the only light he had: a candle
inside of a hollowed turnip. The carving of pumpkins is associated with
Halloween in North America, where pumpkins were not only readily
available but much larger, making them easier to carve than turnips.
Many families that celebrate Halloween carve a pumpkin into a
frightening or comical face and place it on their doorstep after dark.
In America, the tradition of carving pumpkins is known to have preceded
the Great Famine period of Irish immigration. The carved pumpkin was
originally associated with harvest time in general, in America and did
not become specifically associated with Halloween until the mid-to-late
The imagery surrounding Halloween is largely an amalgamation of the
Halloween season itself, works of Gothic and horror literature, nearly a
century of work from American filmmakers and graphic artists, and a
rather commercialized take on the dark and mysterious. Halloween imagery
tends to involve death, evil, the occult, magic, or mythical monsters.
Traditional characters include the Devil, the Grim Reaper, ghosts,
ghouls, demons, witches, pumpkin-men, goblins, vampires, werewolves,
zombies, mummies, skeletons, black cats, spiders, bats, owls, crows, and
Particularly in America, symbolism is inspired by classic horror films
(which contain fictional figures like Frankenstein’s monster and The
Mummy). Elements of the autumn season, such as pumpkins, corn husks, and
scarecrows, are also prevalent. Homes are often decorated with these
types of symbols around Halloween.
The two main colors associated with Halloween are orange and black.
Trick-or-treating and guising
Typical Halloween scene in Dublin, Ireland.
Halloween costumes are traditionally those of monsters such as ghosts,
skeletons, witches, and devils. Costumes are also based on themes other
than traditional horror, such as those of characters from television
shows, movies, and other pop culture icons.
BIGresearch conducted a survey for the National Retail Federation in the
United States and found that 53.3% of consumers planned to buy a costume
for Halloween 2005, spending $38.11 on average (up $10 from the year
before). They were also expected to spend $4.96 billion in 2006, up
significantly from just $3.3 billion the previous year.
Games and other activities
In this Halloween greeting card from 1904, divination is depicted: the
young woman looking into a mirror in a darkened room hopes to catch a
glimpse of the face of her future husband.
There are several games traditionally associated with Halloween parties.
One common game is dunking or apple bobbing, in which apples float in a
tub or a large basin of water the participants must use their teeth to
remove an apple from the basin (to make things even more challenging,
try removing the stems from the apples). A variant of dunking involves
kneeling on a chair, holding a fork between the teeth and trying to drop
the fork into an apple. Another common game involves hanging up treacle
or syrup-coated scones by strings; these must be eaten without using
hands while they remain attached to the string, an activity that
inevitably leads to a very sticky face. Kids can play a “kill the witch
game” by drawing and coloring a witch on a large piece of paper, cutting
out circles from black construction paper and sticking tape on the back
to make the witch’s warts. Then blindfold the players, spin them around
three times and have ’em pin ugly warts on the witch! The player who
sticks the wart closest to the nose wins.
Some games traditionally played at Halloween are forms of divination. In
Puicini (pronounced “poocheeny”), a game played in Ireland, a
blindfolded person is seated in front of a table on which several
saucers are placed. The saucers are shuffled, and the seated person then
chooses one by touch; the contents of the saucer determine the person’s
life during the following year. In 19th-century Ireland, young women
placed slugs in saucers sprinkled with flour. A traditional Irish and
Scottish form of divining one’s future spouse is to carve an apple in
one long strip, then toss the peel over one’s shoulder. The peel is
believed to land in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse’s
name. This custom has survived among Irish and Scottish immigrants in
the rural United States.
Unmarried women were frequently told that if they sat in a darkened room
and gazed into a mirror on Halloween night, the face of their future
husband would appear in the mirror. However, if they were destined to
die before marriage, a skull would appear. The custom was widespread
enough to be commemorated on greeting cards from the late 19th and early
The telling of ghost stories and viewing of horror films are common
fixtures of Halloween parties. Episodes of TV series and specials with
Halloween themes (with the specials usually aimed at children) are
commonly aired on or before the holiday, while new horror films, are
often released theatrically before the holiday to take advantage of the
Haunted attractions are entertainment venues designed to thrill and
scare patrons; most are seasonal Halloween businesses. Origins of these
paid scare venues are difficult to pinpoint, but it is generally
accepted that they were first commonly used by the Junior Chamber
International (Jaycees) for fundraising. They include haunted houses,
corn mazes, and hayrides, and the level of sophistication of the effects
has risen as the industry has grown. Haunted attractions in the United
States bring in an estimate $300-500 million each year, and draw some
400,000 customers, although trends suggest a peak in 2005. This increase
in interest has led to more highly technical special effects and
costuming that is comparable with that in Hollywood films.
Because the holiday comes in the wake of the annual apple harvest, candy
apples (also known as toffee, caramel or taffy apples) are a common
Halloween treat made by rolling whole apples in a sticky sugar syrup,
sometimes followed by rolling them in nuts.
At one time, candy apples were commonly given to children, but the
practice rapidly waned in the wake of widespread rumors that some
individuals were embedding items like pins and razor blades in the
apples. While there is evidence of such incidents, they are quite rare
and have never resulted in serious injury. Nonetheless, many parents
assumed that such heinous practices were rampant. At the peak of the
hysteria, some hospitals offered free x-rays of children’s Halloween
hauls in order to find evidence of tampering. Virtually all of the few
known candy poisoning incidents involved parents who poisoned their own
children’s candy, and there have been occasional reports of children
putting needles in their own (and other children’s) candy in need of a
bit of attention.
One custom that persists in modern-day Ireland is the baking (or more
often nowadays, the purchase) of a barmbrack (Irish “bairin breac”),
which is a light fruitcake, into which a plain ring, a coin and other
charms are placed before baking. It is said that those who get a ring
will find their true love in the ensuing year. This is similar to the
tradition of king cake at the festival of Epiphany.
Other foods associated with the holiday:
Bairin Breac (Ireland)
Bonfire toffee (in the UK)
Toffee Apple (Australia when celebrated, England, Wales and Scotland,
instead of “Candy Apples”)
Roasted sweet corn
Roasted pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread
“Fun-sized” or individually wrapped pieces of small candy, typically in
Halloween colors of orange, and brown/black.
Novelty candy shaped like skulls, pumpkins, bats, worms, etc.
Small bags of potato chips, pretzels and caramel corn
Chocolates, caramels, and gum
Around the world
Halloween is not celebrated in all countries and regions of the world,
and among those that do the traditions and importance of the celebration
vary significantly. Celebration in the United States has had a
significant impact on how the holiday is observed in other nations. The
history of Halloween traditions in a given country also lends context to
how it is presently celebrated.
In North America, Christian attitudes towards Halloween are quite
diverse. In the Anglican Church, some dioceses have chosen to emphasize
the Christian traditions of All Saints Day, while some other Protestants
celebrate the holiday as Reformation Day, a day of remembrance and
prayers for unity. Celtic Christians may have Samhain services that
focus on the cultural aspects of the holiday, in the belief that many
ancient Celtic customs are “incompatible with the new Christian
religion. Christianity embraced the Celtic notions of family, community,
the bond among all people, and respect for the dead. Throughout the
centuries, pagan and Christian beliefs intertwine in a gallimaufry
(hodgepodge) of celebrations from October 31 through November 5, all of
which appear both to challenge the ascendancy of the dark and to revel
in its mystery.”
Many Christians ascribe no negative significance to Halloween, treating
it as a purely secular holiday devoted to celebrating “imaginary spooks”
and handing out candy. Halloween celebrations are common among Roman
Catholic parochial schools throughout North America and in Ireland. In
fact, the Roman Catholic Church sees Halloween as having a Christian
connection. Father Gabriele Amorth, a Vatican-appointed exorcist in
Rome, has said, “[I]f English and American children like to dress up as
witches and devils on one night of the year that is not a problem. If it
is just a game, there is no harm in that.” Most Christians hold the view
that the tradition is far from being “satanic” in origin or practice and
that it holds no threat to the spiritual lives of children: being taught
about death and mortality, and the ways of the Celtic ancestors actually
being a valuable life lesson and a part of many of their parishioners’
heritage. Other Christians, primarily of the Evangelical and
Fundamentalist variety, are concerned about Halloween, and reject the
holiday because they believe it trivializes (and celebrates) “the
occult” and what they perceive as evil. A response among some
fundamentalists in recent years has been the use of Hell houses or
themed pamphlets (such as those of Jack T. Chick) which attempt to make
use of Halloween as an opportunity for evangelism. Some consider
Halloween to be completely incompatible with the Christian faith due to
its origin as a pagan “Festival of the Dead.” In more recent years, the
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has organized a “Saint Fest” on the
holiday. Many contemporary Protestant churches view Halloween as a fun
event for children, holding events in their churches where children and
their parents can dress up, play games, and get candy.
Religions other than Christianity also have varied views on Halloween.
Some Wiccans feel that the tradition is offensive to “real witches” for
promoting stereotypical caricatures of “wicked witches”.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
“Halloween Comes to America”. A&E Television Networks.
Nicholas Rogers, “Samhain and the Celtic Origins of Halloween,”
Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2002), 11-21.
Hutton, Ronald (1996) Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year
in Britain. Oxford, Oxford University Press ISBN 0192880454
“Halloween and the jack-o-lantern”. Witchway.net.
http://www.witchway.net/hallows/jack.html. Retrieved on 2008-10-31.
History of the Jack O’Lantern, Pumpkin Nook
Diane C. Arkins, Halloween: Romantic Art and Customs of Yesteryear,
Pelican Publishing Company (2000). 96 pages. ISBN 1-56554-712-8
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