Halloween is the time for dressing up, going door to door, carving pumpkins and listening to scary stories. This popular holiday has been celebrated for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t always about the candy and costumes.
The celebration of Halloween in western traditions was heavily influenced by Celtic pagans who celebrated a festival called Samhain (Sa-ween), said Bonnie Glass-Coffin, director of the anthropology program at Utah State University.
During Samhain, the veil between the living and the dead is said to be at its thinnest. It is held when the moon enters 15 degrees into the house of Scorpio, which can range from Oct. 25 to Nov 5, depending on the year. This year it lands on Oct. 31, Halloween.
“So that point of the year is the best time of the year to contact departed loved ones,” said Julia Gill, a junior in anthropology and a practicing Wiccan, “but with good, there’s also bad, so it’s a time you really need to protect yourself from negative entities or energies or whatever you see it as.”
As a way of protection, pagans would carve scary faces into turnips or radishes — and later pumpkins — to scare away demons and evil spirits.
“They see (the scary faces) and they think that ‘okay, this place is already bad, and I don’t want to go near it because that’s scary too, so I’m going to go find something innocent to prey on, and vulnerable and everything,’” Gill said.
Masks and costumes were also used as protection, Gill said. By wearing scary costumes, evil spirits would think the wearer was evil as well and would move on somewhere else.
“And it’s developed into just dressing up in general, which bugs the crap out of me, ‘cause I think it’s pointless,” Gill said. “These days it’s all about just dressing up as any random thing and getting candy, and that’s not what it’s about at all for me.”
The tradition of trick-or-treating has ties from the Catholic/Protestant war, said Jessie Greenspan in the article “Guy Fawkes Day: A Brief History.”
Guy Fawkes and four other Catholic dissidents set up a conspiracy to blow up the British parliament in what became known as the Gunpowder Plot. This was done with hopes a new monarchy would be ushered in that would allow Catholicism.
However, Fawkes was caught on Nov. 4, 1605 in the cellar beneath the House of Lords with a stockpile of gunpowder, and was sentenced to death, Greenspan said. Later, children would sell effigies of Fawkes on the street for a penny; thus, the origins of trick-or-treat.
A lesser-known celebration for Oct. 31 is Reformation Day, held in honor of the protestant movement.
In an article titled “The Connection Between Halloween and Reformation Day,” Justin Holcomb writes that Oct. 31 is a day of religious significance among Pagans, Catholics and Protestants. Halloween is known as the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517.
The “95 Theses” at this time was meant as little more than a humble confrontation of the previous traditions in place, Holcomb said. Luther was confronting two religious observances that promoted false saintliness and exploited people’s fear of judgment and purgatory. These two observances are All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
The staff of History.com wrote an article, “Luther Posts 95 Theses,” explaining that Luther condemned the excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, especially the papal practice of asking payment — called “indulgences” — for the forgiveness of sins.
“Indulgences” supposedly could also be used to redeem dead heathens, or those not baptized into the Catholic Church.
All Souls Day, celebrated Nov. 2, is a day reserved to pray for those damned souls or in this case, the Protestants, said Dave Cleveland, a political activist and avid researcher of religious history.
“The biggest thing was the war between the Protestants and the Catholics,” Cleveland said. “The history was very well known about a hundred years ago, but has since been supplanted by the modern traditions of dressing up in costumes and getting candy.”
Today, All Souls Day is strictly observed by the Roman Catholic Church to pray for dead ancestors. This is done to hasten their ancestors from Purgatory into Heaven.
According to Holcomb’s article, the practice of praying for those lost souls was also to commemorate Christian martyrs and later, all saints in general. The observance of All Saint’s Day was originally celebrated May 13, 609 by the Catholic Church 835, but was later changed by Pope Gregory III to Nov. 1.
When Luther condemned the practice of these two days, he angered the pope and solidified the divide between the Catholic Church and the Protestant movement.
Oct. 31, the day before All Saints day — or All Hallows Day — is known as All Hallows Eve, shortened over time to Hallowe’en. These three days mark the Allhallowtide, a time to remember the dead including martyrs, saints and all departed Christians.
This idea of celebrating and remembering the dead has been a human tradition since pre-history, Glass-Coffin said.
“Halloween, what it’s really about I think, culturally and historically, it’s a holiday about honoring the ancestors, about recognizing the continuity of life and death,” she said.
At the end of summer, when the harvest is in and the weather turns cold, Glass-Coffin theorized that people living in small communities tend to come together, tell stories and remember where they came from, and that’s when the ancestors were typically honored.
“These societies were not literate in the sense that there was no written word to be able to tell them the customs and the traditions and the things that they needed to know from generation to generation in order to survive,” she said. “The ancestors knew those things, so by remembering the ancestors and the stories of the ancestors, people are reinventing culture every generation, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel, about when to harvest, where to hunt, what to plant, things like that.”
Every culture around the world has some way of honoring the ancestors during this time of year, Glass-Coffin said.
In the Americas, specifically Mexico, the Day of the Dead is celebrated by visiting cemeteries with food and offerings. This is to invite loved ones to participate in the land of the living for this one time of the year.
Community bonfires are built in Europe, particularly in the British Isles, as a way to show the ancestors the way to the land of the living from the land of the dead.
“What I find interesting is that the people who would gather around the bonfire to celebrate their ancestors to give offerings to share, would take a piece of that bonfire home and relight the hearth fires, so in essence it was a way of bringing the ancestors back into that space and remembering the continuity of life over the generations all year long,” Glass-Coffin said.
Whether this holiday is called Samhain, Reformation Day, or All Hallows Eve, the dead have been honored for generations, all around the world. Though practices and beliefs may have changed over time, the essence of the day has stayed the same.
“I think it’s good to remember that regardless of how individualistic our society thinks it is, we’re part of something bigger than ourselves and remembering the people who came before us is a good step in relinking into who we are,” Glass-Coffin said. “And I really think that that’s the spirit of Halloween.”
— Jason Crummitt and Miranda Lorenc