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Halloween is coming…..and even in the time of Covid, it’s time to carve pumpkins, find a costume,… pull out that old mask….but…. why?

Do you ever wonder where holiday rituals come from? These kinds of things have intrigued me my whole life. Why, on October 31st, do we wear costumes, carve pumpkins and go trick or treating? What are the origins of these interesting activities? In this blog I will share a bit of what I have learned.

Halloween is a holiday celebrated each year on October 31st. The tradition seems to have originated with a festival known as Samhain, celebrated by the Celts who lived approximately 2000 years ago in the area of Ireland, the United Kingdom and France. The Celts celebrated their New Year on November 1st marking the end of summer and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time often associated with human death.

The Celts also believed that on the night before the New Year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and ghosts of the dead returned to earth. To scare away evil spirits and prevent them from identifying people, the Celts would light bonfires and wear scary masks and costumes, hoping this would trick the spirits and keep them away. I must have somehow known this as a kid since I ALWAYS insisted on having a scary costume on Halloween and even got angry at other kids who dressed up as fairies or lady bugs or bunny rabbits. The picture I post here shows me at 5 years old in kindergarten wearing a witches costume on Halloween with my friend Judy dressed in an Alice in Wonderland outfit. You can see by the look on my face, and I can remember like it was yesterday, that I was upset at my friend and all the others who were “not taking it seriously” or “doing it right. ” And yes, I was born with this perfectionist, literal temperament, which has been both an asset and liability, eg., that same temperament lead to the obsessive counting of calories and following diet rules that helped facilitate my development of my anorexia nervosa….. but back to the origins of Halloween.

Similar to the origins of our other holidays, in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and “All Saints Day” and incorporated some of the traditions of the Celtic’s Samhain festival. The evening before, October 31st, became known as All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween.

Our carved pumpkins came from “Jack-O-Lanterns” which were originally large potatoes or turnips carved with scary faces and lit with candles in the hopes of also scaring away the spirits.

As far as where Trick or Treating came from, it is a bit blurry and hard to know exactly but there are some indications. By the ninth century, Christianity had spread into Celtic lands and gradually blended with and supplanted older pagan rites. In 1000 A.D. the church designated November 2 as All Souls’ Day, a time for honoring the dead. Poor people would go to wealthier families in a practice called “souling” where they would pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives in exchange for “soul cakes.” Eventually children started taking up the practice, and would go from door to door asking for gifts such as food and money. I suggest we all do some “souling” this Halloween and pray for the souls of dead relatives or friends or all those who died this year….but no need to expect candy or anything else in return.

Similar to “souling,” and perhaps from the same origin, children from from Scotland and Ireland took part in a tradition called “guising”, where they dressed up in costumes, went to households and sang a song, recited a poem, told a joke or performed another “trick” before collecting a treat.

Knowing the origins of our holidays, and the rituals we engage in during them, helps me feel connected to why I am celebrating the holiday and what makes it special or important. Perhaps it will help you have a more meaningful experience, connect you to an ancient past and promote wonder and curiosity about what will have changed hundreds of years from now.

Whether you do some “souling,” “guising” or “trick or treating” during this Halloween… safe.

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