Winnipeg Halloween: Origins of the Celebration

Halloween is an annual celebration, but many wonder, exactly what does it celebrate? Is it a kind of demon worship? How did it originate? Is it a harmless ancient pagan ritual?

Ancient Origins
The word "Halloween" has its origins in the Catholic Church as a contraction of "All Hallows Eve". November 1 is "All Hollows Day" (or "All Saints Day") which is a Catholic day of observance in honor of saints. Back in 5th century BC Celtic Ireland, summer officially ended on October 31. Their holiday was called Samhain ("sow-eyn"), the Celtic New Year.

It was thought that on that day, the disembodied spirits of all those who had died throughout the preceding year would come back to find and possess living bodies for the next year. The Celts believed this was their only hope for the afterlife. On this one night, the spirit world could intermingle with the living. The still-living did not want to be possessed, so on the night before, villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes, to make them cold and undesirable. They would then dress up in ghoulish costumes and paraded around the community to frighten away the spirits looking for bodies to possess.

Another theory of why the Celts extinguished their fires was so that once a year all the Celtic tribes could re-light their fires from a common source: from the Druidic fire that was kept burning in the Middle of Ireland, at Usinach. It was also said that those possessed were burned at the stake. The Romans adopted the Celtic practices as their own, and the first century AD, they abandoned the sacrifice of humans and turned to burning effigies.

The Romans called their holiday "Feralia," and made sacrifices in honour of the dead and offered prayers for them. The festival was celebrated at the end of the Roman year, on February 21. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV introduced All Saints' Day to replace the Celtic festival of the dead, to be observed on May 13, though later Gregory III changed the date to November 1.

Trick-or-treating is thought to have originated with a ninth-century European custom called souling. On All Souls Day, November 2, Christians would beg for "soul cakes" (square pieces of bread with currants). The beggars would promise prayers on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that prayer, even by strangers, could speed a soul's passage into heaven.

Modern Rituals
The custom of Halloween was brought to America in the 1840's by Irish immigrants fleeing their country's potato famine. Seasonal pranks on this day including unhinging fence gates and tipping over outhouses.

The Jack-o-lantern custom probably comes from Irish folklore. Jack was a drunkard and trickster who tricked Satan into climbing a tree, and then carved an image of a cross in the tree's trunk. This trapped the devil up the tree, and finally made a deal with the devil that, if he would never try to tempt him again, Jack promised to let him down the tree. After Jack died, the story goes, he was denied admittance to Heaven for his evil ways, and was also denied entrance to Hell for tricking the devil. The devil did give him a single ember to light his way in the frigid darkness, which he placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer. When the Irish immigrants came to America, they found that pumpkins were far more plentiful than turnips.

Today, some cults and devil worshippers may have adopted Halloween as their "holiday," though the festival actually grew out of the Celtic ritual celebrating a new year. Today, many churches recognize its early Christian origins and have Halloween parties or pumpkin carving events for the kids.

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