THE HISTORY OF HALLOWEEN
Almost five hundred years before the birth of Jesus there were people who lived in Britain and Ireland called the Celts. They had priests called Druids. They did not believe in Christianity because there was no Christianity at that time. Christ had not come yet.
The Celts celebrated their New Year on November 1st. You see, October 31 was officially the last day of summer. In their northern climate, it was the time when things began to die for the winter and the power of the sun faded because the earth tilted in the other direction. They called that day, Samhain (sow-en).
People in those times were very superstitious. They believed that on this last night of summer that the spirits of people who had died would come back. You see, Jesus had not yet come and brought ever-lasting life. Even the Jewish people back in the Holy Land did not believe in life after death. People just did not know that we live after we die and go to heaven.
So, they believed that the last night of summer was the time when the separation of the world of the living and the world of the dead was the thinnest. They believed that the evil spirits passed through a barrier and entered into the world of the living. They also believed that family member would revisit their earthly homes. Of course, this was superstitious and not true at all, but the people 2,500 years ago did not know better.
In fact, they thought that the spirits might try to possess them, or destroy their crops, or steal their babies or kill their farm animals. Naturally the living did not want to be possessed or have things happen to their possessions, so they would extinguish the fires in their homes so their homes would become very cold and very undesirable to be in. Then they would dress up in all kinds of scary costumes and parade around the neighborhood to scare away the spirits.
Another thing that the people did was to leave out food for the spirits hoping that a “treat” would prevent them from performing an evil “trick” on them. Some of the people wanted some of the food, so while they were dressed in scary costumes, they went to other people’s house demanding food in exchange for leaving the house unharmed. They even carved out faces on turnips and put candles inside.
They had a lot of silly superstitions like that. For instance, they would light a fire and each person would put a nut in the fire. The first nut that crack, that person was supposed to get married next. Its silly, I know, but if you think about it, at our weddings, the bride throws her bouquet and the one who catches it is supposed to be the next one to get married. So we can be pretty superstitious, too.
They would put apples in a tub and try to retrieve an apple with their mouth. If you could get an apple in your mouth, you’d have good luck all year long. That too, is silly, but on our New Years, we eat black-eye peas and cabbage for good luck. So while some of these things sound pretty goofy, we still do some pretty goofy things ourselves.
Almost a thousand years after this holiday began, Christianity began to spread throughout Europe. People were learning about Jesus Christ. The pagan temples were torn down, and people did not believe in spirits any more. But the traditions continued -- especially by the children. In Ireland, children liked to dressed up and go from house to house asking for a treat on October 31. If they did not get one, they did some unwelcomed trick on that person.
Now, in the 700s, the Church wanted to combat the festival -- they didn’t like it -- so they replaced it with a celebration of the Lord of life, instead of a celebration of the dead. The church decided to recognize the saints -- or the hallowed ones -- who lived godly lives. The word Hallow means “holy” or “respect greatly.” Basically, the church said, “All right, if you must have a day to celebrate the dead, then celebrate those who died and are now with the Lord.”
So November 1st came to be called All Saints’ Day, or in other words, All Hallows’ Day. The evening before was called All Hallows’ Evening. That is where we get the word Halloween.
But all that other stuff continued. In the middle ages, people believed in witches, so more things got associated with Halloween -- black cats, witches, bats, and skulls.
Now, the Irish people began to immigrate to the United States in massive numbers in the middle of the 1800s. That was because their potato crop failed and there was famine and hunger everywhere. When the Irish came, they brought Halloween with them. They also brought the custom of costumes, trick-or-treating, and carved Jack-o-lanterns.
By the way, where did Jack-o-lanterns come from? Well there was an old tale -- and it is just a tale, it is not true -- about a man named Jack. He was a drunkard and a trickster. The story says that he tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Then Jack carved the image of a cross in the tree’s truck, trapping the devil up in the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that -- if the devil would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree.
So, according to the tale, when Jack died he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied entrance to Hell because he had tricked the devil. Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer.
That is the silly little story, isn’t it. But we have a lot of silly stories, too. So the Irish used “turnips” as Jack-o-lanterns. That’s right, turnips. But when they came to America, they found that pumpkins were far more plentiful than turnips. So the Jack-o-lantern in America was a hollowed-out pumpkin, lit with an ember.
Today, devil worshipers and cults have adopted Halloween as their favorite “holiday.” But Halloween did not really grow out of evil practices, even though there are many who will try to tell you that. There is no historical basis for stories of human sacrifice and stuff like that. It grew out of the Celtic people celebrating their New Year. It grew out of superstitions, but many people are superstitious even today. They don’t walk under ladders or try not to spill salt or break a mirror. People get four-leaf clovers and a rabbit’s foot for luck and avoid opening an umbrella inside.
Merchants like Halloween because they sell a lot of candy, costumes, decorations and party goods. It helps their stores at a time before Christmas. Halloween is only evil if someone wants to make it evil. Don’t forget, it is a time to remember all the Hallowed People -- all the holy people -- all the saints and those people we love. And if you want to have some fun by dressing up in costumes and going to parties -- well, they do that on Mardi Gras too, don’t they. But also remember, the day after Halloween is All Saints Day. And that is really the day we remember all out loved ones who are happy in heaven because Jesus came and taught us about everlasting life -- life forever with God.
Isn’t it a shame those people 2,500 years ago didn’t know about everlasting life. It must have been awfully scary for them. But it is not scary for us. We know the truth and we can laugh at Halloween and rejoice on All Saints Day.