The exact origins of Halloween are a little muddy. So where the actual origin is or who celebrated first is lost in lore, so we're only going to back up to that time when Catholicism began to attempt to override the pagan rituals. They tucked Church holidays to pagan ones because who wants to give up a great holiday? These folks were already celebrating with a harvest festival or willingly doing things to appease the nature gods for a better harvest next year.
Probably the most accepted origin of Halloween, that merely means the somewhat similar concept and celebration that shows up the most though the various European countries… Got the idea? Okay.
Long story short, Halloween was a harvest celebration, complicated by All Saints Day I'll save you from how they only looked at the year as three seasons and not four, yet recognized the four lunar divisions of time. That's a whole different discussion. The pagan celebration of the harvest included the idea that their beloved family members would watch over them. Much like a favorite uncle might be watching to be certain his niece or nephew were successful and bountiful. Add All Saints Day in there when people were to celebrate the Catholic saints. Not the football team. Although I'm certain that Saints fans would love such a holiday, but the Church claimed it first. Furthermore football, as a sport, had not been developed yet and that's probably because they didn't have much leisure time between Spring planting to when they were harvesting everything by hand with only a scythe.
So on All Hallow's Eve that favorite long-since-dead family member came to visit or that's what they believed might happen. People wanted to be prepared and show off that they would survive the long cold winter and manage to feed their family with their abundant harvest even if that harvest was pitiful. To prove their wealth, they set the table with an extra plate in honor of that dead family member and placed food on the plate. It is a little gross, isn't it?
Now depending on which country- it varies slightly… This morphed into a trickster night
The holiday changed slightly into the idea of sharing that wasted plate of food with neighbors or the less fortunate in the neighborhood. Eventually it changed again into children going from house to house to sample the sweet treats that everyone had made for the holiday.
The wearing of costumes appears to come from the young men not wanting to be caught by those who would probably know them and might tell the families. This disguise was referred to mumming. Mumming was used for plays and other forms of entertainment usually by traveling bands of actors.
Now the pumpkin/jack o' lantern is even more complicated. For starters, the pumpkin didn't exist at least not in Europe way back in those days. Gourds did but apparently in southern countries. Also the lowly turnip wasn't in the cucurbit family, but it's believed that it was large enough to hollow out and hold a candle thus giving a person a means of lighting their path or maybe to show a doorway of a house willing to give out a treat. The actual jack o' lantern derived its name from the light that flickered over the peat bogs. It's what we would call foxfire but they called Jack O'Lantern. That's not that the same as that internet browser app called Firefox.
Most northern European countries tended to celebrate this crazy holiday, but each area had its own flavor and slightly different traditions. But the concept of a harvest festival was not limited to Europe. It seems people everywhere enjoyed a party and what better thing to celebrate than a bountiful harvest?
Now in the United States, it appears the Swedes brought mumming, dressing up, in the form of parades to Philadelphia, but it was the Celtic people that brought Samhain with them to the new country. And like most forms of entertainment, when there were no X-boxes or TV's to occupy the time after the sun had set, it didn't take much to catch on with the general public. The fun spread as these people moved around the country. The downside of it was those who weren't so innocent also took up mumming. Getting drunk and roaming around in costume was frowned upon. So it was outlawed, except many disliked the new laws that prevented their fun. So eventually it was allowed in controlled situations. It fizzled out in most places, except in Philadelphia, PA. and Hagerstown, MD.
But the fun of visiting houses for treats on All Hallow's Eve, Halloween, or Samhain (pronounced SAH-win or SOW-in) stayed and became a children's holiday. It was a chance for them to go mumming. It was only celebrated in a few places in the USA before the 1900's. So what happened to those adults who honestly loved being mummers and meant no harm? They banded together into several small clubs in the Philadelphia area where they began building elaborate costumes and received a permit to march on New Year's Day 1901.
That parade is one of the oldest parades in the USA. If you've never seen it, it's worth watching. Many of the costumes are 100 pounds or more and require strong bodies. They train all year long. No military marching, or lazy shuffling from these folks, they dance or what they call strut for a mile! Over the years, they have followed old traditions that often weren't and still aren't politically correct. One of the mummers has come forward and said we all keep learning, and the clubs involved are trying hard to be more welcoming to all people this year.
I know as a child I scrambled down the steps when my mom's wake-up call was to say the parade was on the TV. A special dance is performed with a traditional chant. Think of a military-type marching song and you've got the flow of the chant.
Here we stand before your door,
As we stood the year before;
Give us whiskey; give us gin,
Open the door and let us in.
Or give us something nice and hot
Like a steaming hot bowl of Pepper Pot.
Except I refused to eat Pepper Pot and I didn't care how traditional it was. I refused even say "Pepper Pot" instead I substituted beef potpie. Really one of the few foods I ever refused it eat other than brussel sprouts and it wasn't the tripe that it contained that made me turn my nose up - it was those green peppers and onions.
But it was the traditional song of the parade that I think every child in the Philadelphia area could sing, James A. Bland's "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers" probably because we heard it several times during the parade.
Oh, dem golden slippers!
Oh, dem golden slippers!
Golden slippers I’m gwine to wear,
Becase dey look so neat.
Oh, dem golden slippers!
Oh, dem golden slippers!
Golden slippers I’se gwine to wear,
To walk de golden street.
As an adult, I discovered that James A. Bland was a very talented Black man who often couldn't find work because suitable parts went to people in blackface. Some things will never make sense to me. Nor did I realize as a child that this was a religious song about dying and going to heaven. I guess heaven is paved in gold.
So whether you call it Halloween, All Hallow's Eve, Samhain, or about ten other names with virtually the same meaning, it falls on Oct 31. It's a hodgepodge of traditions that have filtered into a simple childrens' holiday. It's a spooky, fun time for everyone. It's a chance for families to gather around the kitchen table and figure out how to carve a pumpkin without stabbing each other! Okay, I promise I'm joking. And just how much reflective tape can a child wear without making a Darth Vader costume look like a construction pylon for controlling traffic?
If you love the idea of keeping old traditions alive, try setting a plate at the table in honor of a loved one who has passed. Count a few blessings. Sometimes we forget how lucky we are, how far we've come, and just what we do have.
Halloween wasn't celebrated too much in the early days of the west except for a few people who brought the traditions of their country with them. The closest ranch might be a full day's drive away so the holiday passed without any fanfare. If the town's population was mostly a particular ethnic group that celebrated, it was possible that the children did, too. Otherwise it took until the 1920's for the evening to truly be a holiday.
Today in many parts of Europe, people still visit the cemeteries of family members and decorate the graves with flowers. In the northern hemisphere, we are done with the harvest of most crops and we are heading into the quiet months of winter with less light and a chance for more snuggle time with those we love.
A long time ago, I spent a Halloween in labor. She wasn't born until the next day, but I'll never forget that particular Halloween. I leaned against the wall by the door because it was too much trouble to sit between the little ghosts and goblins looking for treats. In fact many of my fun memories from childhood center on Halloween. We got to run free in our darkened neighborhood. And in those days, we ate whatever was in our bags and at the houses. If timed correctly, hot cider was waiting for us at one house when we were certain our fingers and toes might fall off because they must have been frozen solid. One neighbor had cookies, and another allowed us to use the bathroom. Gone are the days where everyone knew everyone in the neighborhood. Kids no longer do what we did.
Halloween is changing. I think it's in flux and hasn't settled into its new shoes in this modern society. But it will probably continue to change and keep up with the times. After all, it's no longer a marauding band of drunks playing games in the neighborhood. Look how far we have come since those days. It's a fairly new one in North America, but its roots go back over one thousand years and its history is buried in lore. But as we become more global, we keep sharing our traditions with other countries. Halloween is now part of quite a few countries where it had never been celebrated.
Have a safe and wonderful holiday!
Trick or Treat!