How did Halloween Start

Celebrated on October 31, Halloween is one of the most awaited holidays, all over the world. With roots in a tradition that Europeans began, thousands of years ago, it is today one of the most celebrated festivals globally. Its history is as interesting as the celebrations associated with it. Let's see how 'All Hallows' Evening' came to be called Halloween, how it spread across cultures, and why.
Did You Know?
Folklore has it that Halloween is said to have its roots in paganism in Europe, before the beginning of Christianity. It symbolizes the start of winter; the burning of leaves, and purifying by fire, everything that is evil and/or old. Scholars attribute the origin of Halloween to harvest festivals of the Celtic culture and pagan festivals that commemorated the dead. The festival is particularly connected with the Roman feast called Pomona and a Celtic festival known as Samhain.
Halloween was earlier known as All Hallows' Evening. Here, Hallows connotes Saints. It is said that this word came from the belief that all saints have halos. Also known as All Hallows' Eve, the term All-Hallows-Even was noticed first around the 16th century. While some scholars and legends indicate that this might have been inspired from the Celtic festival of Samhain, majority of them are of an opinion that both these festivals (Halloween and Samhain) originated independently from each other, and differently. (A short description to Samhain is provided at the end of the article). Some scholars like Historian Nicholas Rogers even say that Halloween is not inspired from one, but many other cultural festivals. This is what he has to say:-

Some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the Goddess of Fruits and Seeds, or in the Festival of the Dead called Parentalia, it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain, derived from the Old Irish Samuin meaning 'summer's end'.


By Daniel Maclise (1806 - 1870)

The above painting, called 'Snap-Apple Night' (1832) depicts Apple Bobbing and Divination games. This tells us that these games date back to 1832 or earlier. This depiction is of a party in Ireland.

A more accepted beginning of this festival, however, is that it is influenced by All Saints' and All Souls' Day. These days are respectively celebrated on 1st and 2nd of November. The first was celebrated to honor saints, and the latter to pray for those who have lately departed. Halloween falls just before these two days, on October 31. A tradition then, also involved ringing of bells. This was done for the souls in purgatory (a condition of temporary punishment in order to purify, to be made 'ready' for Heaven).

Folklore says, and it is largely believed by people, that the souls of those who have departed will wander the Earth from their time of death to the next All Saints' Day. Till then, they can seek revenge or vengeance from those who cheated them. This means, their last chance to do so was on Halloween's Day. On the next day, these souls would travel to the next world. It is said that the practice of wearing costumes (guising) was thus introduced to hide from these souls.

Halloween and Samhain were celebrated in Scotland and Ireland since the Middle Ages, and still are. However, Halloween started differently in Britain. Protestants (followers of the Church of England) believed that the whole concept and/or philosophy of purgatory was not on the same lines of predestination, and thus was based entirely on the Pope's ideologies. The festival and its celebration was accepted in the continent only in the 19th century, after large immigration from Ireland and Scotland. Even in North America, there is no indication of Halloween being a holiday in the local calendars.

Halloween and Samhain celebrations, earlier included only turnips for carving Jack O'-Lanterns. However, immigrants to North America first used pumpkins, which were more easily and locally available, and also softer. This is how the practice of carving Jack O'-Lanterns started in North America. Carving of pumpkins was known in America since 1837, but was associated with Halloween, only near the end of the 19th century.


By Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952)

Certain celebrations, that are associated with Halloween, date back centuries. For example, the game of apple bobbing is said to date back roughly to A.D. 43. The painting above is by Howard Chandler Christy, named 'Halloween'. It was reproduced in January 1916, in Scribner's Magazine.

Samhain is a harvest festival celebrated around the world on October 31 (Northern Hemisphere) and November 1 (Southern Hemisphere). It marks the end of harvest, and thus, that of the lighter half of the year. Thus, at the same time, it marks the start of the darker half of the year. Celebrations of this festival are similar to most of Halloween's, such as Guising and Apple bobbing.

While there is no exact answer as to when Halloween started, these stories are believed by most people. It is indeed very surprising that a festival that is so widely celebrated, has such a vague beginning. What matters of course is that you enjoy Halloween; it's an opportunity to celebrate our obsession with all things scary.
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