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A Brief History of Halloween

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Once a year it happens.

It happens when the autumnal equinox settles on the state, slowly, like an old woman shuffling down the street.

The crisp October wind scatters crayon-colored leaves while the moon, looking like an oozing, ripe persimmon, hangs low and full in the sky.

Under the leafless, barren trees, a small skeleton, a space creature, and a cardboard robot approach a house, ring the doorbell, and demand a treat.

Quickly, their sacks are filled with gum, suckers, mini candy bars – everything your mother wouldn't let you eat before dinner. Then they're off to another house to make another demand, moving like giggling shadows in the night.

Nearby, a glowing Jack O'Lantern illuminates the dark as parents keep a silent vigil in the family car.

It's October 31st.

Halloween.

And for millions of people, the last night of October is a unique and bizarre celebration. A holiday filled with fun, treats, and consuming; a holiday rich in traditions and symbols that date back more than 1,000 years before Christianity.

A holiday that, even today, remains misunderstood.

THE CELTS

Once there were human and animal sacrifices. Huge, village-wide bonfires, dances, and costumes made from the heads (and hides) of animals filled the autumn night. It's here we find the roots of Halloween: with the Celtic people.

For the Celts and their priests, the Druids, Halloween marked the beginning of a season of decay, cold, death, and darkness. At this time, the Celts believed the souls of the dead were allowed by their god, Samhain, to return to their earthly homes for the evening. Samhain, the Lord of the Dead, acted as a tour guide during this ethereal journey. For the Celts, autumn was the season of the final harvest and, by allowing the dead to join in the party, the Celts ensured prosperity for the coming year.

The dead also helped the Druids tell the future.

But not everyone was thrilled that the ghost of a long-dead neighbor might show up for coffee. So, to protect themselves, villagers lit bonfires, not only to honor those who had died, but to guide the visiting spirits, and keep them away from the living.

For the Celts, this early Halloween celebration marked a time when all types of beings – both living and dead – walked the earth.

ROME AND CHRISTIANITY

Slowly, time and the Roman Empire would change things.

The Romans, seeking to gather territory, conquer the world, and spread their unique culture, overran the Celtic countries.

Once they had conquered the Celts, the Romans merged their own two autumn festivals with the Samhain celebration. Feralia, the Roman festival of the dead, and Pamona, the celebration of the goddess by the same name, combined with the celebration of Samhain into a new holiday, where the Roman influence dominated. The apple's presence in today's Halloween celebration stands as an example of that influence.

Fast forward to the Christians.

As the Celts adopted Christianity, the Samhain celebration became known as All Hallows Eve and added a second day, All Saints Day.

During All Saints Day, the Catholic Church paused to honor all Christian saints, especially those who did not have a particular day named for them.

But two days wasn't enough. The church, seeking to quell any opposition, added a third day, Nov. 2, to ensure Christians praised all those who had died. This was known as All Souls Day.

And, still, Halloween continued to change; All Hallows Eve became Hallows Eve and then, eventually, Halloween.

JACK'S LANTERN

The small girl carries a plastic, orange pumpkin filled with candy. Little does she know the pumpkin – a Jack O'Lantern – was intended as punishment for an ancient Englishman.

"Jack" was a scoundrel. When he died, he was unrepentant; he'd broken every commandment, and was far too miserly to be allowed into Heaven. But Jack was also excluded from Hell because he'd played too many tricks on the Devil.

So Jack had no place to go. He was forced to roam the Earth carrying a lantern until Judgment Day, when both Satan and the Almighty would decide just what was to be done with him.

At least that's how the legend goes.

Eventually, Jack's lantern would evolve into a gourd, which had been hollowed out and lit with a candle. From there, it became a pumpkin, and a century or so later, the pumpkin got a face. Today, the plastic Jack O'Lantern is still roaming the face of the earth, awaiting his fate.

During the time of Jack's legend, Scottish villagers grew concerned the world's ghosts and witches were holding some type of underworld convention to meet with Satan. The Scots worried things would get ugly should the bad guys hook up with Old Scratch.

So they decided to fight fire with fire – literally. To shoo away the spirits of the dead, the Scots paraded through their fields carrying torches and starting bonfires.

The Scots weren't that successful at ridding the world of evil. In fact, the only thing which outlasted the villagers was the tradition. The evil spirits just hung around until the next year.

TRICK OR TREAT

The kid in the Robot costume yells, "Trick or Treat." The door opens. The adult steps out, feigns fear and, well, you know the rest.

But there's a little more to those three words.

The goal, legend says, is that if you give the kids candy – the treat – they go away and cause no harm. But tell the little rascal "no" and you'll get tricked.

It's the modern-day equivalent of two ancient celebrations. One honored the Irish god, Muck Olla; the other was part of the English All Souls Day celebration.

According to legend, the Irish staged a parade to beg for food. At the parade's head, the local village elder dressed in a white robe and wore a mask made from the head of an animal.

The English added to the myth, but in a different way. Instead of animal heads and parades, the English poor would go "'a-souling." That is, they wondered through the city knocking on doors and asking for "soulcakes" – a type of pastry about the size of a child's hand. Should a soulcake be given, the poor wretch begging at the door would promise to pray for the donor's soul – at least until the next stop.

PURITANS AND IMMIGRANTS

The All Souls Day celebration ended with the rise of the English Puritans.

Due to the Puritans' strict religious beliefs and extensive fear of witches, the Halloween celebration declined.

It wasn't until the 1820s that things changed again. As new Irish and Scottish immigrants came to the United States, they brought their customs and beliefs, which renewed the holiday and formed what we now know as the modern Halloween celebration.

MODERN TIMES

By 9 PM the streets are full.

Small ghouls and goblins, witches, and a horde of other creatures roam the city seeking candy.

The five-year-old vampire, his mouth full of caramel, pretends to fly across the lawn. He reaches the door, delivers the demand, and soon is on his way, unaware that a thousand years ago, on that very night, on that same spot, another small five-year-old wore a wolf's hide and danced in the light of a bonfire.

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About M. Scott Carter