Ever wonder where we get certain Halloween traditions? I do. Halloween’s origins date back to an ancient Celtic festival celebrating the new year. The Celts—who lived in an area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France—celebrate their new year Nov. 1.
This day marked the end of summer harvest and the onset of winter, so this time of year was often associated with death. Celts believed that, on the night before the New Year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, even thin. On Oct. 31, it was believed that ghosts of the dead penetrated that “thin” wall to visit earth. Later, All Souls Day (Nov. 2) and All Saints Day (Nov. 1) introduced by Christian missionaries and the Catholic Church perpetuated this idea of the living and the dead comingling around this time of year. That would explain the presence of ghosts on Halloween—so say historians of this tradition.
In addition to stirring up trouble or damaging crops, the presence of otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to comfort the people as they faced a bleak winter ahead —or so it was thought. For a people dependent on the volatile natural world, these Druid or Celtic prophecies provided comfort and direction for a long, dark winter ahead. Might this explain some predictive superstitions associated with Halloween—e.g., black cats bring bad luck, even a curse.
To commemorate the New Year, Druids built sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and sacrifice animals (some humans, too—mostly criminals) to Celtic deities. During the celebration, Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, as they attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. People would also don disguises believing they would be mistaken for spirits themselves and left alone by faking out the ghosts. That would explain, in part, our fascination with Halloween costumes, which still fake us out.
Did you know that one fourth of all the candy sold annually in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween? Where does that tradition of candy consumption come from?...
According to pagan tradition, these ghosts or spirits of the living dead could be pacified and leave the home well enough alone, if candy were left on the doorstep of that home. Another way to scare off evil spirits was to carve frightening faces into gourds—so began the jack-o-lantern tradition.
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Other researchers speculate that Halloween’s candy bonanza stems from the Scottish practice of “guising”—a secular version of “souling.” In the Middle Ages, soulers—usually children and poor adults—would visit homes to collect food or funds in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. Guisers later dropped prayers in favor of nonreligious “tricks,” such as jokes or songs.
A third tradition explains our modern trick-or-treating for candy in terms of “belsnickling.” In this German-American tradition, children would dress in costume, then visit their neighbors to see who could guess the identity of each disguised visitor. In one version of this practice, the children get rewarded with more food or other treats, if no one could identify them. I do this guessing game myself and am of German heritage, so that could explain why I do that.
Going door-to-door for handouts is a long-held Halloween tradition. But only after the 1950s did the “treats” kids received revolve mostly around candy. Before 1950, my birth year, toys, coins, fruit, and nuts were just as likely to be given out. The rise in trick-or-treating for candy was driven by the marketing campaign of candy companies wishing to sell individually wrapped sweets. People obliged out of convenience, but such candy didn’t top all other treats until the 1970s, when parents began fearing anything unwrapped. The one popular exception being candy corn, which became Halloween-specific when trick-or-treating rose to prominence in the U.S. in the 1950s.
What about apple-bobbing? When Rome conquered most of Celtic territory, from 43 AD onward, festivals of Roman origin were merged with local traditions. One such festival honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple—voila! bobbing for apples becomes part of Halloween.
May you capture all the ghouls, costumes, candy, and apples that this hallowed tradition offers. But as you do, remember to honor All Saints Day and All Souls Day over the next day or two.
Rev. Dietrich Gruen is Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Columbus and Bethany Presbyterian of Randolph.