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AROUND TOWN: Christian origins of Halloween

I intended for this article to be in last week’s paper since it deals with the Christian origins of Halloween but it didn’t make it to the newsroom. Since many Christians observed All Souls Sunday this past weekend, I think the timing is still appropriate. This article is the result of a program Shirley Roberts gave at a recent church women’s meeting. She discussed the Christian origins of Halloween. Intrigued, I did additional research and would like to share some trivia with you.

In ancient times, Halloween was considered a pagan celebration and not popular with early Christians. This is in stark contrast to today where $3.2 billion is spent on adult and children costumes. Even more monies are spent on Halloween attire for pets. Statistically, Halloween sales for costumes, candy and decorations have increased more than 35 percent over the last five years, in spite of the economy.

Halloween is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). People would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated Nov. 1 as a time to honor all saints (known and unknown) and martyrs with All Saints’ Day which incorporated some of the Samhain traditions. All Saints’ Day is also known as All Hallows, Solemnity of All Saints, and the Feast of All Saints. It is the day before All Souls’ Day.

The evening before All Saints’ Day was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into a secular, community-based event characterized by fanciful costumes and child-friendly activities.

All Souls’ Day is celebrated on Nov. 2 to honor Christians who have become saints. It is also known as the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. Today, many Christian churches ceremonially light candles in remembrance of loves ones with special recognition given to those who passed away during the past year.

America’s “trick-or-treat” tradition can be traced back to early European All Souls’ Day parades. During the festivities, families would give poor citizens pastries (soul cakes) in return for their promise to pray for the family’s dead relatives. Eventually this practice was taken up by children who would visit neighborhood houses for food or money.

The practice of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Many believed Halloween was a time that ghosts came back to the earthly world. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. Bowls of food were also placed outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter.

Witches are one of the last additions to Halloween. The greeting card industry added them in the late 1800s because they were scary. Even though the Halloween card failed, the witches stayed. The jack-o-lantern was also introduced in the late 1800s by ill-informed folklorists who thought Halloween was druidic and pagan in origin. Lamps made from turnips (not pumpkins) had been part of ancient Celtic harvest festivals, so they were translated to the American Halloween celebration.

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