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A brief history of Halloween

Posted: Friday, Oct 29th, 2010


Heather Young/Atascadero News




To some, Halloween means dressing the kids up in cute costumes and sending them door-to-door to collect candy.

To others, it means going to a haunted house somewhere to get chased around by some guy wearing a hockey mask and wielding a chain saw.

Whether it’s bobbing for apples or a menacing pack of zombies dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Halloween is a time full of traditions for most Americans.

But where did it come from? The holiday has roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Christian holiday All Saints’ Day, but is mostly a secular holiday these days.

Samhain is derived from Old Irish and is roughly translated to “summer’s end,” and it’s a festival that celebrates the end of the lighter half of the year and beginning the darker half.

According to ancient Celtic belief, the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on Samhain, which allowed spirits fair and foul to pass through. As the belief goes, the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks. Going door-to-door in costumes for treats dates back to the Middle Ages, including what was then known as Hallowmas — Shakespeare’s early 1590s comedy “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” has a character accusing his master of whining “like a beggar at Hallowmas.”

Halloween followed immigrants from Scotland, Ireland and England to the United States and Canada. Dressing up in costume and going trick-or-treating became popular in the United States in the early 20th century. The first mass-produced costumes started appearing in stores in the 1930s.

The earliest known reference to going door to door and begging for treats in the U.S. and Canada goes back to 1911 when a newspaper in Kingston, Ontario, Canada said it was common for children to go street “guising” on Halloween between 6 and 7 p.m. visiting neighbors and businesses to be rewarded with nuts and candies for their songs and rhymes.

Meanwhile, “trick or treat” first appears in print in 1927 from the Herald newspaper in Blackie, Alberta, Canada, stating that Halloween provided an opportunity for fun with no real damage done except to the tempers of people who had to hunt for items that had been moved as pranks, while the youthful tormentors would be at the door asking for edible plunder by the words “trick or treat.”

A well-known Halloween tradition, although less practiced today, involves bobbing for apples. Candy apples also used to be more common before everyone got scared that people could put razor blades in them. Halloween comes in the wake of the annual apple harvest, explaining these ties between apples and Halloween.

Pumpkins are also typically harvested around this time of year, but the Jack-o’lantern, as known today with pumpkins, is a North American invention. In Ireland and Britain, Jack-o’-lanterns were usually carved from vegetables such as turnips or Swedes (better known as rutabagas), and weren’t connected with Halloween.

The name is first attested in the 16th century and is a Scottish variant of “All-Hallows-Even” (evening), which is the night before All Hallows Day. All Hallows Day, otherwise known as All Saints Day, is a Christian religious holiday honoring all saints known and unknown. The name was spelled “Hallowe’en” up through the early 20th century, with the apostrophe replacing the “v.”

Haunted attractions are generally attributed to the Jaycees, who used them for fundraising. Over the years, the level of sophistication of the haunted houses, corn mazes and hayrides has grown and the attractions nationwide are estimated to bring in between $300 million and $500 million.

Halloween is not celebrated everywhere in the world. The practice has spread to many corners of the planet, with North American traditions heavily influencing how they’re celebrated elsewhere.











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