Halloween History and Lore

Sunday night is Halloween. The streets will be taken over by small-fry dressed as witches, superheros, ghosts or other spooky creatures, all holding out treat bags and chanting, “Trick or Treat.”

Halloween is a very old celebration. Like Christmas, which was a Christianized Druid midwinter festival celebrating the Winter Solstic, Halloween was at first a pagan holiday called Samhain. The Celts celebrated it at the end of the harvest season, 2000 years before the birth of Christ.

Samhain is the mid-point between the fall equinox, Sept. 22, and the winter solstice, Dec. 21. Halloween got its spooky aspect because the Celt’s believed that at Halloween the doorway between the spirit world and the physical world would open and ghost and spirits could cross to harass the living.

In an October 1920 Wyoming Stockman-Farmer magazine, a part of a column called, In The Home Circle the writer tells about the history of Halloween. “October 31— or all Hallows Eve is the vigil of Hallowmas of All Saints’ Day and was celebrated long before Christianity was known to the world. The lighting of bonfires and the belief that all through that night ghosts and witches were likely to walk abroad were the chief characteristics of the day. The evening one of mystery and supernatural things are expected, especially by the young-folk.

The Druids always celebrated about the first of November and lighted bonfires in honor of the Sungod in thanksgiving for the harvest.”

When Julius Caesar and succeeding Roman leaders conquered Celtic lands in Britain in the first centuries B.C. and in 43 A.D., they added their own spin on the Celtic celebration.

The Stockman-Farmer article continues: “In the Roman festival, nuts and apples representing the winter store of fruits played an important part. Thus the roasting of nuts and the sport known as “apple ducking,” were once the universal occupation of the young folk in medieval England and are still quite popular.

Flying in the breeze, this evil character looks like he could be Saman.

Too, the Druids believed that on the eve of their celebration, Saman, lord of death, called together the wicked souls that within the past twelve months had been condemned to inhabit the bodies of animals. The black cat which is so prominent in Hallowe’en celebrations, is a proof of that.”

The bats as a symbol of Halloween came from the Celts as well. When they would light bonfires, the heat and the light would attract insects, which, in turn, attracted the bats.

Bats are nocturnal; and animals that are active at night are often associated with the black arts and death. Bats also live in caves, and the underground environment is associated with the underworld.

The Farmer-Stockman: “But what was once a serious rite, has now become an autumn festival of sport and jollity in which imaginary fairies and elves bring fortune. The custom of lighting Hallowe’en fires survived until recent years in the highlands of Scotland and Wales.”

Halloween became popular in American during the Colonial times, but most festivities featured ghost stories and sometimes mischief-making of all kinds. During the 19th century, autumn festivials were common, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century, with the flood of many Irish immigrants who brought the festival with them, that Halloween became a more national celebration.

In The Upton Newsletter, October 1911: “The festival of the night of October 31 is in its origin and traditions one of the most picturesque which now finds observance in this country. It has a number of different designations, among which are Hallowe’en, All Hallow Even, Nutcrack Night and Snap Apple Night. It derives its most common name, however, as the eve or vigil of All Saints’ or All Hallows Day (November 1).

From time out of mind this has been heralded as a night when witches, devils and other mischief-makers are abroad on their baneful midnight errands, while the fairies are supposed to hold on that night a grand anniversary. To accept the spirit of the season the devotee of Hallowe’en must concede that on no other night of the year do such supernatural influences prevail as after dark on the closing day of October. According to ancient beliefs the spirits of the dead then wander about and in some instances the spirits of living persons are supposed to have the temporary power to leave their bodies and join the ghostly throng.

“Especially gifted with the power to converse with airy visitants are persons who have had the good fortune to be born on October 31, but other folks, also, tradition hath it, may be warned or advised by the elves. For all that such awesome doing are attributed to the mysterious spirits that are abroad on Hallowe’en these supernatural beings cannot be altogether ill-natured, since they are willing, without fee or reward, and on the condition of the performance of a very simple ceremony to disclose to any young man or woman most interesting particulars concerning their future life partners.”

During the Middle Ages, many European Christians, especially in France, believed that once a year, on October 31, the Eve of All Hallows, the dead from the churchyards rose for one wild, hideous dance. Known as the Danse Macabre, or the Dance of Death, this was an allegory on the universality of death. No matter who you were, pope, emperor, laborer or child, the Danse Macabre unites all. This was sometimes enacted at Halloween pageants, with people dressing up as corpses. Some feel this could have been the origin of Halloween costume parties.

Skeletons, as a representation of death, have always played a big part in Halloween. Looks like these are rehearsing.

Another theory for dressing in costumes for Halloween was a part of the Celt’s belief that if they dressed in costumes, they could confuse the spirits and fairies, who might want to kidnap them on Halloween. Many dressed up like animals, believing the animal’s power could be transferred onto the wearer, and could even ward off any evil spirits that might try to disturb the night.

Individuals in Cajun communities would hold a nocturnal Mass in the cemeteries on Halloween night. Candles that had been blessed were set on the graves of loved ones, and sometimes families would spend the entire night at the graveside.

Trick or Treat got its start after Catholicism arrived in the British Isles in the seventh century. The church took over the pagan holiday, renaming it All Saints Day. During All Saints day, poor people would visit the homes of wealthier people, asking for ‘soul cake’ in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of dead relatives. They called it ‘souling’. Later children took up the practice, going from door to door asking for gifts and treats.

Jack-o’-lanterns came later. Around 1800 in Scotland and Ireland there was a myth or a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack,” who tricked the devil one night and was condemned to walk the earth with only a carved turnip with a lump of burning coal to light his way. In an attempt to scare away Stingy Jack and other wandering spirits, people began to make lanterns by carving scary faces into vegetable such as pumpkins, lighting them with a candle, and placing them in windows for protection.

Jack-o’-lantern carving has moved from the triangle eyes and toothy mouth to more creative pieces

Pranks, tearing up property, and at one time tipping over outhouses, were standard fare at Halloween. Residents whose property was damaged began complaining and new ways to celebrate the holiday had to be found.

The Farmer-Stockman article referenced earlier stated: A revival of many of these old customs would furnish great amusement to our young people and would keep them out of mischief. The idea of ghosts and spooks doing great damage, such as tearing up sidewalks, breaking windows, and stealing property is ridiculous. Ghosts and goblins may play pranks which may prove funny and mirth-provoking but no ghosts or goblin has ever been seen doing things as earthly as knocking down fences, tearing up flowers and bushes, or stealing property. Boys and girls— see if you can be a goblin— throw a shiver or a chill into your victims— be original and above all be ghostly!

The Sheridan Daily Enterprise, November 1, 1911: Only a very few of the mischievous Hallowe’en pranks were perpetrated on the public last evening, but so far none of the property owners have made complaint to the police department. The chilliness of the night prevented many of the juveniles from celebrating the occasion in their customary manner. Several plain clothes men were stationed throughout the city and they reported everything exceptionally quiet and orderly.

In The Sheridan Enterprise in November 2, 1912: Hallowe’en Mischief Makers Are Quiet – The Hallowe’en season passed off very quietly in Sheridan and this year was noted for the many social functions. Many parties have been given leading up to the event and a Thursday evening the occasion was ‘celebrated very generally with parties and dances.’ Conversely, there was very little damage done to property by boys and young men and the police have only heard of a few instances where any mischievous tricks were perpetrated. A crowd of boys on Park Street tore down some fences and caused annoyance to property owners in that part of the town but were not detected in the acts. In the northern part of the city a crowd of small girls dressed in boys clothing had a good time but confined their amusement to scaring people with innocent Hallowe’en pranks.

In a short article in the Gillette Saturday Shopper on Oct. 12, 1935, it noted that Sheridan Civic Clubs consider a plan to throw a big party on Halloween. Sterling, Colorado tried this and found it worked better than lecturing the kids about how bad it was to tear up things on Halloween.

These days, Halloween is a fun holiday. Instead of celebrating the harvest, it is a celebration of fall, and a welcome to the coming winter. There are almost as many Halloween decorations in Sheridan County as there are Christmas decorations. Tombstones turn lawns into graveyards; skeletons hang from trees, ride bicycles and climb up walls; ghosts and witches pop up everywhere.

Decorations for house and yard are common during Halloween

Costume parties are held at various venues, often with prizes given for the best costume. Even pets get in the act. Pet costumes can be purchased nearly anywhere pet food is sold. Costumes for pets include lions, superman, skeletons, peacocks, and even dinosaurs.

With more health concerns these days, some area dentists are offering a candy buyback, where kids can exchange the candy for cash or other prizes. Candy can also be donated to the deployed troops, or first responders. Operation Shoe Box also accepts donations of unopened candy for their Christmas shoe boxes.

Halloween has seen many changes over the ages, even in name; from Samhain to All-Saints Day, to All Hallows Eve and finally to Halloween, the celebration is a mingling of many different traditions. Spooky decorations, costumes, trick or treat, bats, and black cats, Halloween today embraces them all. So, have fun all you ghosts and goblins this Halloween.

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