Untangling the History of Halloween and October 31st
For the kiddies, Halloween is known for a number of things, but is enjoyed by so many primarily because it's a time to wear colorful and spooky costumes, go door to door begging for candy, and watch monster movies. But, how did it all begin, you might ask. Well, it is believed that its origins date back many centuries to the enactment of the Christian holiday, All Saints' Day. However, during its rise in popularity, it has also picked up lots of traditions from the Celtic festival, Samhain, which is the celebration for the start of winter each year.
The term or name 'Halloween' stated as 'All Hallows Eve' and later became 'All Hallow E'en' and eventually was know as 'Hallowe'en,' or Halloween in modern days. This day was the evening before All Hallows Day, later known as All Saints' Day. For these purposes, the word hallows means saints. As a feast for all saints and martyrs, All Saints' Day was celebrated on November 1st for the first time during the eighth century, although customs vary from one time to another regarding its observance. However, the date was officially established in 837 by Pope Gregory IV for all Catholic churches.
Beginning around the tenth century, this celebration was one the eve of All Souls' Day, which quickly came to overshadow it. It was held on November 2nd and was a day of prayer for those who had passed away. The belief, in those days, was that the prayers of the living could comfort the dead souls and possible even elevate them from Purgatory. The activities and observances always began the previous evening with the ringing of church bells and prayers.
When England moved to Protestantism from Catholicism, the bell ringing for All Souls' Day was prohibited and no official services were conducted. Groups and individuals continued to find ways to observe the day, maybe because of a feeling of obligation to their loved ones who had died. There are reports that date back as far as the 16th century of people praying in the fields by the light of bonfires or torches.
Another popular observance involved the making of 'soul cakes.' These were anything but cakes and were given to the poor, and, in return, the poor would offer prayers for the dead of those giving soul cakes. The poor, along with their children, in some areas would go 'souling,' to the homes of the wealthy and asked for fruit, soul cakes, and alms, which was a practice even mentioned by Shakespeare in his famous The Two Gentlemen of Verona. November 1st was once designated as Samhain, which was an ancient Celtic festival, also called the end of summer. Although the exact origin is unknown, story has it that was a pagan calendar feast on the opposite end of the year from Beltane.
There has always been a great deal of speculation about the relationship between Samhain and the Halloween All Saints All Souls holidays. Many believe that the observances by Christian were intentionally moved to November to take over the pagan holiday. However, there is no evidence to support this theory. Another theory is that the pagan celebration could have gained its associations with the dead from the holidays for Christian, but, again, this is only speculation at best.
A more logical explanation could be that the turn of autumn, with the harvesting completed, the nights getting longer, the days getting colder, and everyone preparing to face the upcoming cold and harsh winter, naturally leads to thoughts of the unknown and death. Lots of different cultures signify the beginning of spring with happy and light-hearted holidays and celebrations of renewal and fertility, autumn could very possible attract holidays when the people focus on the other side of life's cycle. However, it scarcely matters if the pagan and Christian holidays were ever related to each another, since the two have been intermingled in the popular imagination of society for a long period of time.
The modern Halloween observances are a lot more recent than you might expect. This particular holiday had a rebirth in the United States between the 19th and 20th centuries primarily because of the large influx of Irish immigrants. As they migrated to the U.S., they often brought with them traditions that combined features of the Christian holidays and the Celtic, and celebrated with divinations, feasting, and mischief making.
However, in recent years, several groups have pushed back against the Halloween holiday. There are some Christians who object to its allegedly pagan origins, and to what they see as its celebration of witches and the likes. This has brought many neo-pagans to object to the perceived Christian takeover of their holiday, or to what they think might be a distorted, negative view of magic and witches. And, for others who object, they just don't think it's safe for kids to go out after dark begging and receiving candy from strangers.
However, with all this being said or written, as long as there is a steady supply of candy corn, cold autumn nights, and radio stations play 'The Monster Mash,' there is absolutely little danger of the growing popularity of Halloween to go away. After all, it is believed to be the second most popular holiday in America.