Language & Culture

The Harrowing History of Halloween

October is coming to an end. A chill has crept into the air. At night, a dark wind blows the leaves from the trees, leaving their bare branches outstretched, like skeletal fingers reaching for the sky. Crepuscular creatures, sequestered for the spring and summer in underground lairs, begin to roam the streets in search of meat.

Soon it will be Halloween.

HalloweenThe holiday’s history is still debated but most believe its origins are in the 2000 year-old Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain (pronounced “sam-win”), which may or may not have influenced the creation of All Hallows’ Eve (from which we get the name Halloween). The two festivals occur on the same day and both suggest that on the evening of October 31st, the barriers between the worlds separating the living and the dead are particularly weak; ghosts, devils, and other monsters may at this time pass through. In both festivals, people dressed up as evil spirits, hoping that they could escape the notice of any otherworldly visitors. On Samhain, the ancients would light great bonfires, the light from which attracted insects and – subsequently – bats, which we now associate with Halloween. It wasn’t until much later in the history of Halloween, in the 16th century, that youths began dressing up in disguise and going from home to home, demanding gifts or threatening mischief. The young miscreants would carry homemade lanterns carved from turnips that were thought to ward off the supernatural beings who wandered the Earth on Halloween.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when large numbers of Irish immigrants began moving to North America, Halloween and its traditions moved along with them. Today, while the holiday has lost popularity in Britain, it fuels an $8 billion industry in the United States, Canada, and – increasingly – in other parts of the world, as well. It’s a holiday for scary movies, for costumes and candies and parties, a time for fun…but be careful on your way home tonight. Who knows what lurks in the growing autumn shadows.

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