By Linda F

Halloween is our strangest annual celebration. It is neither patriotic nor historical, yet we celebrate it nationally. Unlike many other holidays, Halloween is not associated with any particular religion, though it touches death, spirituality and various religious beliefs. Halloween is a merger of customs from pagan and Christian traditions.

On this one day a year, Oct. 31st, we here in the US throw caution to the wind and open our homes to strangers dressed in costumes and wearing masks, we then gladly give them a token gift of candy in hopes that no tricks are played.

The festival of Samhain on Nov. 1st goes back as far as the Fifth Century B.C. This is the official end of the summer and the new year based on the natural cycles of the earth. Samhain celebrates the summer harvest and honors the dead – whose souls were thought to revisit the Earth at this time. This the time when the “thinness of the veil” between the worlds of the living and the dead occurs, and the power of divination is said to be strongest. Bonfires were lit, food would be left to attract the dead and the Celts wore masks to evade and frighten any evil spirits.

The Catholic Church, with Pope Boniface IV, introduced All Saint’s Day on May 13th. Years later in 731 A.D. to replace the pagan festival of the dead, Pope Gregory III changed it to November 1st, to compete with the pagan ritual. Trying to end the non-Christian celebrations, the Roman Catholic Church blended Samhain festivities into the Christian Calendar.

Today we celebrate three special days in autumn Halloween on Oct. 31st, All Saint’s Day Nov. 1st and All Soul’s Day on Nov. 2nd. The Halloween name itself is of Christian origin. “All Hallow’s Eve” is the evening before All Saint’s Day, a special Holy Day. The word “hallow” means “sanctify” in old English which is to make sacred or purify. The phrase was shortened to simply Halloween.

Halloween is one of the world’s oldest holidays and is known by many names. In Ireland it is called Pooky Night after a mischievous spirit in Irish folklore. Australia knows Halloween as Mischief Night or Danger Night. Some people there call it the Devil’s Night too. In the UK, particularly England, the night is called Nutcracker or Snap Apple Night. Families would eat nuts and apples in front of the fire as they told stories. An important event in Mexico is The Day of The Dead, (or to us, All Soul’s day). The day before is known as The Night of The Dead.

All Souls Day is believed to have come from a Christian that had traveled to Jerusalem. Returning home he was shipwrecked and was washed ashore an island. Here he met a man who could hear the cries of the dead from a rock. It was the Abbot at French in Cluny who, at hearing this claim, made the 2nd of November the day to prayer for the trapped souls to grant them peace. Over the years, this simple festival spread to other parts of Europe and Britain.

A ninth-century practice in Europe was called souling. On November 2nd, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes”. These were square pieces of bread with currants. The beggars would agree to pray for dead relatives, whose souls were in limbo. It was believed that these prayers by strangers could expedite a soul’s passage to heaven.

From the beginning of time, people have worn masks when they wanted to avoid disasters or droughts, for the belief that demons or unhappy spirits brought on these problems were wide spread. By wearing masks one could confuse the demon and not be recognized and therefore protect his or her family and himself from these troubles.

The custom of dressing up in costumes and visiting houses is called guising in Scotland. The tradition of Treat for Treats began with the Druids who believed the dead would cause panic by playing tricks on mankind, and to appease the spirits food would be given as gifts. Opening your door to the wandering dead became common during Samhain that some people eventually began to dress like the wandering dead and demanded food.

Folklorist Tad Tuleja believed that trick-or-treating developed in the 1930’s as a means to control youngsters’ night pranks on Halloween. The phrase “trick or treat” didn’t come in use till 1941, when it appeared in the files of Merriam-Webster Inc, after being used in the title of a poem in the Saturday Evening Post. According to Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase appeared in The Sun in Baltimore in 1950. It may even be much older it is fun for children to say and gives a bit of excitement to the evening of Halloween.

One symbol associated with Halloween, the pumpkin which is a fruit, is of Native American heritage. Before Columbus it was unknown to Europeans. The sacred trinity of native foods was squash, beans and maize, which appear in the form of candy corn and corn shock decorations. In Ireland, turnips are used to make jack-o-lanterns originally. Pumpkins are easier to hollow out for a candle and to carve a scary face into.

The custom of carving these lanterns come from a tale of a young man named Jack who met the Devil at a crossroad and struck up a deal. In exchange for seven years full of fun and merriment, Jack agreed to go down to hell. After seven years had passed, the devil came to collect Jack, but clever Jack nailed the devil’s hand to the wall. The devil could not escape and promised Jack he would not return for him. When Jack died he found his soul couldn’t enter heaven. When he tried to enter hell, the devil threw a ball of fire at him. This caused Jack to form a glow and now he wanders the earth and has fun with people. So beware of Jack, he has been known to lead many a folk to a bad end.

The traditional colors of Halloween are orange and black. Orange represents pumpkins and the autumn harvest while black represents death and darkness. Other symbols of the harvest are scarecrows, corn shock and candy corn. Symbols of death are graveyards, ghosts, haunted houses and skeletons, with witches, goblins and black cats representing the darkness of evil and misfortune. All these items are used as decorations today. Due to the church’s disapproval of pagan beliefs and these symbols were logically incorporated into Halloween to "make light of" the pagan celebration.

The true message of Halloween is that it is a time to reflect, give thanks for the harvest, and to honor those that have gone before us as well as to recognize the eternal cycle of life.