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A History of Halloween
Evil Women
The Many Faces of Dracula
Halloween Nostalgia
Homes of the Dearly Departed
Not Quite Dead
Ghoulies, Ghosties, and Giggles

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A History of Halloween
                                                  Page Two

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In ancient Ireland, the Druids sacrificed to the deities by burning victims in wickerwork cages. All other fires were to be extinguished and were relit from the sacrificial fire. Samhain marked the third and final harvest, and the storage of provisions for the winter. The veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was believed to be at its thinnest point in the year, making communication between the living and the dead much easier. On the eve of the holiday, the souls of the dead freely roamed the land of the living.. 

Some accounts tell of how the Celts would burn someone at the stake who was thought to have already been possessed, as sort of a lesson to the spirits, (Panati). Other accounts of Celtic history debunk these stories as myth, (Gahagan).

The Romans adopted the Celtic practices as their own. But in the first century AD, they abandoned any practice of sacrificing of humans in favor of burning effigies.

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The thrust of the practices also changed over time to become more ritualized. As belief in spirit possession waned, the practice of dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches took on a more ceremonial role.

The custom of Halloween was brought to America in the 1840's by Irish immigrants fleeing their country's potato famine. At that time, the favorite pranks in New England included tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence gates, (Panati).

The custom of trick-or-treating is thought to have originated not with the Irish Celts, but with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for "soul cakes," made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul's passage to heaven.

The Jack-o-lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore. As the tale is told, a man named Jack, who was notorious as a drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree's trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree.

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According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.

The Irish used turnips as their "Jack's lanterns" originally. But when the immigrants came to America, they found that pumpkins were far more plentiful than turnips. So the Jack-O-Lantern in America was a hollowed-out pumpkin, lit with an ember.

So, although some cults may have adopted Halloween as their favorite "holiday," the day itself did not grow out of evil practices. It grew out of the rituals of Celts celebrating a new year, and out of Medieval prayer rituals of Europeans. And today, it is only as evil as one cares to make it.

References: Carolyn Joyce Bidenry, Ancient Pagan Celebrations, 1991; Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, 1987; and Dr. Joseph Gahagan, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Return to A History of Halloween - Page One

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