Did you know that Americans spend an estimated $6 billion annually on Halloween making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday after Christmas? But the seemingly all American holiday did not actually originate there.
The origins of Halloween lie in the ancient 2000 year old Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) observed in what now are modern Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. They observed Samhain on the night of October 31 which was believed to be when the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. The end of harvest and summer and the beginning of dark, cold winters, marked by November 1 was when food became scarce and hard times often lurked in the shadows. They believed that on new years’ eve the line between the living and the dead got blurred.
When the Romans conquered Celtic territory two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. Eventually, Christian and Celtic rites blended and by 1000 AD All Souls Day was celebrated much like Samhain, with bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before it began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually became Halloween.
The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Believing that ghosts came back to the earthly world on Halloween and fearing a ghostly encounter, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark to avoid detection. They would also place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them entering their homes.
The American Halloween tradition of “trick-or-treating” has its roots in the “going a-souling” tradition of All Souls’ Day parades in England when children would visit the houses in their neighbourhood and be given ale, food, and money. It was in the late 1800s though that the holiday became more about community and neighbourly get-togethers than about ghosts, pranks and witchcraft.
Encouraged by newspapers and community leaders, Halloween lost most of its superstitious and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century and became a secular and community centric festival. Borrowing from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became the current “trick-or-treat” tradition. The carving of pumpkins became a family activity as did the baking a pumpkin pie.
Trick-or-treating evolved as a way to know your neighbours and for the entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, children threaten to play tricks on the family they visit and then accept treats or candy instead. A new American tradition was born, and now is becoming popular world-wide.
It gives you the opportunity to express yourself and use your favourite toys and props. Today favourite movie characters and superheroes rub shoulders with witches and ghosts in the trick or treat parade.
Is there a better time to be your favourite superhero?
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