Happy Halloween! I’m writing this after having spent two hours on the front lines, handing out candy at the bottom of a driveway. This has become such a major holiday — I suspect number two now, behind Christmas — that it makes one wonder how we got here.
The best explanation I’ve seen so far is from today’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac. I’m simply going to copy it in its entirety.
“Today is All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween. It’s believed to originate in the Celtic festival of Samhain, a pre-Christian festival held around November 1 to mark the end of summer and the beginning of winter. It was the biggest holiday of the Celtic year: a combination of harvest festival, New Year’s Eve, and community meeting. Animals were brought in from the pasture and made secure for the coming winter, and some of them were slaughtered to provide salted meat for the winter. It was also a time of year when the veil between living and dead was particularly porous, so the spirits of the dearly departed were more easily able to return to their earthly homes. And it meant that other otherworldly creatures – like fairies, leprechauns, and other tricksters – were more likely to be among us. But even though ghosties and ghoulies wandered among the living during Samhain, the supernatural wasn’t the main focus of the holiday the way it is for Halloween.
“As the Christian Church grew, Samhain blended with a Christian holiday known as All Saints’ Day, All Hallows’ Day, or Hallowmas, which was originally observed in May but later moved to November 1. It was a time for believers to honor and remember those who had passed on to heaven. This blending was not coincidental. Early Christian leaders told their missionaries that if they wanted to convert pagans to Christianity, they shouldn’t waste time on trying to suppress their rituals and practices, but rather they should consecrate those practices to Christ and incorporate them wherever possible. This had the effect of establishing Christianity among the pagans – but it also preserved many of the pagan practices instead of quashing them. So Samhain and All Saints’ Day rituals influenced each other and eventually merged, and that is when we begin to see the traditions that we associate with Halloween today.
“One such tradition was the practice of “souling,” common in Britain and Ireland in the Middle Ages. Poor people would go door to door on Hallowmas and offer to pray for the souls of the family’s dead relatives, in exchange for an offering of food. It mingled with the practice of “mumming”: dressing up in costumes and performing wacky antics in exchange for food and drink, and eventually trick-or-treating became a traditional part of Halloween.”
Makes sense to me!
The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor is copyright Minnesota Public Radio. This edition can be found at http://writersalmanac.org/ for October 31, 2016.