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What is Halloween and Why Do We Celebrate it?

 Halloween -- It wasn't always about candies and pumpkins, and it actually dates longer than you think. Halloween in the 21st century is basically just a fun excuse for some to dress up in character costumes, eat a lot of candies and sweet treats, and decorate the yard with spooky decorations. Every year, people from all around the globe celebrate the month of bats, spiders, and ghouls. It’s the season to look forward to and where kids and kids at heart dress, however, whoever, and whichever they want. From scary and crazy costumes, pumpkin-carving, to eating unfathomable amounts of treats, Halloween is the season everybody’s looking forward to.

But in the midst of all the trick-or-treatings, ‘spooktacular’ parties and boo-zy events, a lot of people don’t actually know the history and meaning of Halloween. It’s actually pretty wicked (pun intended) of how Halloween officially came to be.

How it all began

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Photo by Romolo Tavani on Shutterstock


The word “Halloween” literally means “hallowed evening”, and was previously known to early European celebrators as All Hallow’s Eve which falls on October 1 and All Saint’s Day which is celebrated on November 1 of every year. It was eventually shortened to “Halloween”, which is popularly known today. But up until the 7th century, All Hallow’s Eve was actually celebrated on May 13, and perhaps in an attempt to offset the occasion with a religious celebration, Pope Boniface IV ultimately changed the observance to its current November 1 date.

The reason why we celebrate the season on October 1 dates back (to) many years ago. In fact, it falls on that particular date because of the ancient Gaelic/Celtic festival of Samhain -- a festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. It is considered as the earliest known root of Halloween and the Celts believed that the boundary between this world and the next became especially thin and blurred at this time, enabling them to contact the dead.

In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids or the Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. Having to live in a volatile, natural world, these beliefs were an important source of comfort and direction during the long and dark winter.


Halloween Practices: Then and Now

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  Photo by zef art on Shutterstock 


To commemorate the event, many believed that the Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where people would gather to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During this celebration, the Celts would wear costumes consisting of animal heads, skins, and attempt to tell each other’s fortunes.

However, as Christianity took over and the pagan undertones of the holiday were lessened, the basic traditions of this holiday eventually evolved and became modernized. The mystical rituals of earlier times evolved into more light-hearted-games and fun. For example, apple bobbing -- it came to be because of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and trees. Her symbol is the apple, and the incorporation of this symbol into Samhain probably explains the tradition of bobbing for apples that are currently practiced in the modern world. Another example is the mirror-gazing, as people hoped to catch a vision of their future by looking into the mirror.

When it comes to costumes and trick-or-treating, people go crazy over it during the spooky season. Everyone dresses up and go knocking door-to-door for candies and treats. Before the modernized Halloween, many people were said to dress up as saints and recite songs and verses, children would ask for “soul cakes,'' the distribution of these cakes were encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits, and is also a treat similar to biscuits.



Photo by Pressmaster on Shutterstock


Borrowing from Irish and English traditions, Americans began to dress in costumes and go house-to-house asking for food and money, a practice that eventually came to be “trick-or-treating’. The candy grabbing concept also became mainstream in the U.S. in the mid-1900s, during which families would provide treats to children in hopes that they would be immune to any holiday pranks. Costumes, on the other hand, have evolved too. The tradition of dressing up for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots.

Hundreds of years ago, when winter days are short and the nights were long, people who were afraid of the dark were on a constant worry. So, on Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back early to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts when they left their homes, and to avoid an encounter with the ghosts and spirits, people would wear masks whenever they leave their homes so that ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.

Also, dressing in costumes were once an earnest tribute to the saints, until some young Scottish and Irish pranksters got the idea of dressing up as scary-looking ghouls as a way to scare or spook unsuspecting neighbors and kids, and just like that, dressing up for Halloween became creative, fun, and spooky at the same time. Parents were encouraged by newspapers and community leaders to dress “grotesquely” or “frightening” as a way to celebrate the holiday. Because of these efforts, Halloween lost most of its superstitions and religious overtones by the beginning of the twentieth century.

How other countries celebrate it

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Photo by Oleg Elkov on Shutterstock


The season of spooks is widely celebrated today in a number of countries around the globe. Versions of the holiday are celebrated in countries such as Ireland, The United States, Canada, Latin America, and others. In Mexico and other Latin American countries for example, “Dia de Los Muertos”, also known as The Day of the Dead, is a three-day celebration that begins on the evening of October 31 -- the celebration welcomes back the souls of their loved ones and ancestors for a brief reunion that includes food, drink, and celebration. The locals dress up as their ancestors and build altars called “ofrendas”, which they use to present gifts like tequila and sweets.

The classic sugar skull painting can also be seen everywhere. In England, “Guy Fawkes Day” , which falls on November 5, is commemorated with splendid bonfires and fireworks. In Ireland, they celebrate Halloween much as it is celebrated in the United States -- the classic trick-or-treating, spooky costumes, neighborhood parties and such. Their celebration also includes lighting bonfires and fortune-telling like how the Samhains do it.

Halloween in the New Era

In this modernized and digitalized world, Halloween still remains a popular holiday especially in America and is recognized by kids and adults worldwide, however, it actually almost didn’t make it across the Atlantic before. The Puritans -- English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who sought to purify the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices, disapproved of the holiday’s pagan roots, therefore not taking part in the celebrations. But when the Irish and Scottish immigrants began to arrive in America in greater numbers, the holiday made its way back into the zeitgeist. The very first American colonial Halloween celebrations featured large public parties to commemorate the upcoming harvests, tell ghost stories, as well as singing and dancing.


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Photo by Evgeny Atamanenko on Shutterstock 

By the turn of the 20th century, Halloween was celebrated by the majority. Because of this, scary Halloween movies emerged and became box-office hits. Parades and town-wide parties were then moved from town civic centers and even in people’s own homes wherein the accommodation of guests would be easy.

Now that you know the real Halloween, you can celebrate it with pride and more knowledge better than anyone else at your party, and hey it’s a good story to share with your friends about history, don't you think?