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November 02, 2013


Halloween is celebrated on October 31  each year. We picture it as a fun-filled evening for little kids to dress up in scary costumes and go trick-or-treating. But did you know that like many other customs, this too has ancient origins?

About a thousand years ago, Halloween was called All Hallows E'en (the eve of All Saints' Day) - a Christian festival of all those who've  died and gone to Heaven. Much before that - probably more than two thousand years ago - it was a Pagan celebration of the Celts who inhabited  present-day Ireland, Scotland and parts of France. In those ancient times, Halloween was the night before the ancient festival of Samhain, the Celtic lord of death.

Celtic Traditions

Samhain marked the transition from Autumn to the beginning of winter - the season of cold, darkness and decay. On that night, the boundary between this world and the after-world is opened; the dead roam and mingle freely among the living for one night. Frightening fantasies and stories featuring ghosts, witches, monsters and evil spirits were associated with it.

It is believed that this feast was a celebration of the recent dead - warriors lost in battle, children at birth, the old and the sick. There is a legend of an Irish king who, every Samhain, ordered his cooks to prepare and set out the finest food in a great hall. A  place was set for every warrior who was lost in the last year. The living would eat outside and  the banquet hall, with the doors shut, was left to the dead. Nobody alive dared to enter or look in. Legend has it that the food mysteriously disappeared overnight!

In the 9th century, the Church designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day to honor all saints and November 2 as All Souls' Day, to commemorate the dead. The Celtic people who had embraced Christianity added some of the old Pagan traditions to Halloween. They would light huge bonfires, wear costumes to ward off the roaming spirits of the dead, parade in groups and share superstitious stories.

Trick or Treat

The tradition dates back to the early All Souls' Day parades in England. During the festivities, the poor would beg for food and families would give them pastries called "soul cakes" in return for their prayers for the family's dead relatives. Going a-souling was eventually taken up by children who would visit houses in their neighborhood to get ale, food and money.

An early reference to this ritual in North America was around 1911, when a newspaper  reported that  on Halloween, small children visited shops and neighbours to be rewarded with nuts and candies for their rhymes and songs. Today, "trick-or-treating" is the hallmark of Halloween. Kids  in fancy costumes knock at neighbours' doors to be given candy and sweets.

In America

In the US and Canada, as the beliefs and customs of different immigrant ethnic groups meshed, a distinct version of Halloween emerged. Wearing of weird costumes and masks has Celtic roots: to avoid being recognized by ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. Irish-American and Scottish-American societies held dinners and balls that celebrated their heritages. Recitation of Robert Burns' poem Halloween was not uncommon.

This was not a major holiday in the US until the 20th century. Mass producing of Halloween costumes began only in the 1930's. Now Americans spend billions of dollars annually on Halloween, one of the country's largest commercial holidays. House and yard decorations, candies and chocolates, costumes for young and old - all sell like the proverbial hot cakes. After the kids are done with trick-or-treating, there are parades, costume parties and competitions for adults. Guess which are the top 5 favourite adult costumes in the US? Tell us in the *comments* box below.

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