Halloween is a holiday observed on the evening of 31st October in North America and many areas of Europe. Symbolically associated with death and the supernatural, Halloween falls on the eve of All Saints' Day (also known as Allhallows or Hallowmass) and is actually a holy day within the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. It was originally a pagan festival of the dead but the Roman Catholic church established All Saints' Day in the 9th century to honor Christian saints. All Souls' Day (also established by the Roman Catholic church but in the 10th century) is very closely linked to Halloween. Held on November 2nd, All Souls' Day is observed to help purify the spirits/souls of the dead. Historically, Halloween is related to many similar folk holidays around the world.
Modern Day Customs:
The majority of Halloween festivities are based on traditional folklore concerning supernatural forces and spirits of the dead. Typically Halloween decorations feature imagery associated with supernatural beings such as witches, werewolves, vampires, and ghosts etc. Black cats, bats, and spiders are also commonly featured in Halloween and are thought to symbolize bad omens.
Probably the most popular Halloween custom (certainly in North America) is for children to dress in costume and to then go trick-or-treating. The threat of "trick" is ceremonial nowadays but in times gone past houses were actually vandalized! Still hugely popular today in North America most children are now accompanied by parents for safety reasons. Halloween is not celebrated in the same way in Europe. Although big business there would love trick-or-treating to catch on (after all they make a lot of profit on candy) it has failed to do so.
The image most associated with Halloween is probably the jack-o’-lantern, traditionally a hollowed-out pumpkin carved to resemble a grotesque face and lit by a candle placed inside. The jack-o’-lantern derives its name from a character in British folklore. According to these tales, the soul of a deceased person named Jack O’Lantern was barred from both heaven and hell and condemned to wander the earth with his lantern. Orange and black, colors associated with pumpkins and darkness respectively, figure prominently in most Halloween decorations.
Traditionally in ancient times in many areas of Europe the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter was markrd by celebrating a holiday in late autumn. The most important of these holidays to later influence Halloween customs was undoubtedly Samhain, a holiday observed by the ancient Celts (and still celebrated by modern day witches) , a people who inhabited most of Western and Central Europe in the first millennium BC. For the Celts, Samhain marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It was one of four Celtic holidays linked to important transitions in the annual cycle of seasons.
Samhain began at sunset on October 31 and extended into the following day. According to Druidism (a Celtic pagan religion) the spirits of those who had died in the preceding year roamed the earth on Samhain evening. Offerings of food and drink were made by the Celts to ward off these spirits. Bonfires were built by the Celts on sacred hilltops and rituals (often involving animal and human sacrifice) were performed.
The Romans having conquered most Celtic lands by the end of the 1st century AD, absorbed many Celtic traditions and blended local Samhain customs with their own pagan harvest festival honoring Pomona, goddess of fruit trees. Samhain was largely abandoned when the local people converted to Christianity during the early Middle Ages, a period that lasted from the 5th to the 15th century. The Roman Catholic Church often incorporated modified versions of older religious traditions in order to win converts.
Many Halloween traditions were thought to be incompatible with Christianity and often became linked with folk beliefs about evil spirits. Such superstitions varied a great deal from place to place. Many of the supernatural beings now associated with Halloween became fixed in the popular imagination during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (14th to 17th century). In Britain small magical beings known as fairies became associated with Halloween mischief. Believe it or not the jack-o’-lantern was originally carved from a large turnip rather than a pumpkin and originated in medieval Scotland.
Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Europe was seized by a hysterical fear of witches which led to the persecution of thousands of innocent women. Witches were thought to ride flying brooms (besoms) and to be able to shapeshift and take on the form of black cats. These images of witches soon joined other superstitions in Europe as symbols of Halloween.