Thousands of years ago Celtic people inhabiting the area that is now England, Ireland and Scotland celebrated their new year on November 1st. The Celtic religious order known as the Druids held a great festival each year on the evening before the their new year. This festival was celebrated in honor of the god, Samhain, the Druid god of death and was known as All Hallowtide. The Druids believed in the supernatural and tried to placate the Lord of Death with offerings.
They also believed that on this day, the souls of those who had died during the previous year began their journey to another world. Druids believed that souls of the dead returned to their former homes to be entertained by the living. Bonfires were built atop hills so they might find their way. Suitable food and shelter was provided for these spirits or else they would cast spells, cause havoc, steal infants, destroy crops, kill farm animals and create terror as they haunted the living. The spirits demanded placating by giving them a type of worship and offering. This is the action that “Trick-or-Treat” emulates today. The community also sacrificed animals and offered fruits and vegetables so the spirits would keep their distance. The cold and darkness of winter and the presence of spirits are reasons why Halloween is connected with images of death and evil.
Christian missionaries in the Sixth Century sought to reform the pagan beliefs of the Celtic people. They strategically centered all of their holy days around the native holidays, and named November 1 the Feast of All Saints. This day honored all Christian saints, known and unknown, and was meant to eventually replace the festival of Samhain. The day was similarly called All Hallows, in which the word “hallow” means sanctified, or holy.
The custom of celebrating Halloween was brought to the New World by Gaelic immigrants. Today’s celebration follows ancient customs involving a combination of Druid practices and other religious beliefs. Jack-O-Lanterns entered America’s Halloween scene with the Irish in the 1840s. Legend states that a blacksmith named Jack aka “Stingy Jack,” made a deal with the Devil. Jack traded his soul in return for mastery of his trade. Then a saint named Peter came to Jack and offered him three wishes, hoping that he would choose wisely and save his soul. But Jack used the three wishes to trick the devil. When Jack died neither God nor the Devil would accept him. So Jack was left to roam the Earth carrying a hollowed out turnip as a lantern. In Irish folk lore Jack became known as “Jack of the Lantern” or “Jack-o-Lantern.” Jack’s turnip was replaced with a pumpkin when the legend was introduced into American folk lore in the Nineteenth Century.
Today, Halloween has become a multi-million dollar costume business. Generally, on this children’s holiday, children dress up and go from house to house for candy. Harmless pranks are pulled on neighbors or friends. Many communities are now hosting structured activities or parties in order to keep pranks from turning into destructive outings.