Tuesday, October 27, 2015

All Hallows' Eve a.k.a. Halloween

A lot has been said about Halloween of late – questioning its purpose or its religious (or anti-religious) perspective. Here is some information about the holiday – how it started and how it transformed into the only holiday that is a bigger retail bonanza than Christmas!

Halloween, celebrated each year on October 31, is a mix of ancient Celtic practices, Catholic and Roman religious rituals and European folk traditions that blended together over time to create the holiday we know today.  Straddling the line between fall and winter, plenty and paucity and life and death, Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition.  It has long been thought of as a day when the separation between the spirit world and the world in which we live thins.  Consequently, it was believed that the dead could return to the earth.  The ancient Celts would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off any of these roaming ghosts.  The Celtic holiday of Samhain, the Catholic Hallowmas period of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day and the Roman festival of Feralia all influenced our modern holiday.  In the 19th century, Halloween began to lose its religious significance and became a more secular community-based children's holiday.  Although the superstitions and beliefs surrounding Halloween may have evolved over the years, as the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, people can still look forward to parades, costumes and sweet treats to usher in the winter season.

Trick-or-treating is a customary celebration for children on Halloween.  Children often go in costume from house to house, asking for treats such as candy or sometimes money, with the question, "Trick or treat?"  The word "trick" refers to a (mostly idle) "threat" to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given.  In some parts of Scotland children still go guising. In this custom the child performs some sort of trick, i.e. sings a song or tells a ghost story, to earn their treats.

The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for treats on holidays dates back to the Middle Ages and includes Christmas wassailing.  Trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval practice of souling, when poor folk would go door to door on Hallowmas (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2).  It originated in Ireland and Britain, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy.  Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), when Speed accuses his master of "puling [whimpering or whining] like a beggar at Hallowmas."  The custom of wearing costumes and masks at Halloween goes back to Celtic traditions of attempting to copy the evil spirits or placate them, in Scotland for instance where the dead were impersonated by young men with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white.

So, as you see, Halloween has religious origins. Like many of our holidays, it pre-dates the Christian experience.  But like others, it was “baptized” and transformed into a religious observance – and, sadly, like the same other holidays, continues to diminish its religious references in favor of commercial and secular understandings.


[Information gleaned from vairous sources including The History Channel]

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