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Origins of Halloween: Scholars say holiday has Christian, Celtic roots

October 31st, 2013 8:36 am by Rick Wagner

Origins of Halloween: Scholars say holiday has Christian, Celtic roots

A skeleton with a jack-o'-lantern for a head guards the driveway of the Riggins home on Norfolk Place in Kingsport.

Halloween as today’s Americans know it is mostly a creature of the 20th century.

Immortalized for Baby Boomers in Charles Shultz’s 1966 television cartoon “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” where the costumed Peanuts gang’s trick-or-treating was all treats and no tricks, Halloween later became a time for teenagers to watch scary movies such as the “Friday the 13th” series and today’s TV viewers to relish “Walking Dead” episodes about a zombie apocalypse.

But Halloween’s contested origins run deep in early Christianity and/or pre-Christian Gaelic traditions.

And true to its name, it has everything to do with the dearly — or not so dearly — departed.

Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening, also known as All Hallows’ Eve. As every trick-or-treating child know, it is a yearly celebration observed today, Oct. 31.

According to Wikipedia and other sources it cites, and as historians and biblical scholars know, that also is the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It initiates the triduum of Hallowmas, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints, also known as hallows, martyrs and all the faithful departed believers, according to the website.

According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic festival of Samhain.

Tied to a Catholic feast

“It’s (All Hallows’ Day) a Catholic feast. It’s a feast of all souls,” said University of Tennesseen Professor Thomas Heffernan, Kenneth Curry professor of the humanities and director of the UT Humanities Center. “It was not (initially) celebrated in the West.”

He said in a phone interview Wednesday that it was not until the Catholic Irish immigrated to the United States en masse in the middle of the 1800s, after the Irish potato famine, that Halloween started to gain U.S. popularity.

He said earlier Scots-Irish immigrants were, for the most part, Protestant, including most of those who settled into what is today East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia via Pennsylvania.

Wikipedia says some academics maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.
However, Heffernan said the early Catholic Church objected to many of the pagan rituals, including the giving of gifts and making of mischief going back to before Christ. The gifts were often left for the spirits of the dead.

And because the society at that time was pastoral and was based more on the value of cattle than money, farmers would thin their herds for huge feasts because, aside from wanting to celebrate, they couldn’t keep the cattle fed over the winter.
Basically, he said the Celts had a “massive party” as a fall harvest festival in late October each year.

Typical festive Halloween activities today include trick-or- treating or the related “guising” or “trunk-or-treating,” attending costume parties, decorating, carving pumpkins into jack-o’- lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories and watching horror films.

Heffernan said in his native New York egg throwing was a common prank and that he’s heard stories of overturned outhouses in Halloweens past in this region.

Not many early American Halloween activities

North American almanacs of the late 18th and early 19th century give no indication that Halloween was celebrated there.
The Puritans of New England, for example, maintained strong opposition to Halloween, while some today refer to it as the “Devil’s birthday,” and some churches use the time to stage “Hell houses,” portraying what happens when people stray from salvation through Christ, according to Wikipedia.

And Wikipedia, like the UT professor, said it was not until the mass Irish and Scottish immigration during the 19th century that it was brought to North America in earnest.

Heffernan said the jack-o’- lantern was popularized in Ireland, but not with pumpkins, which were a New World item. In Ireland, turnips or beets were used.

According to Wikipedia, Halloween was confined to immigrant communities during the mid-19th century, but was gradually assimilated into mainstream society and by the first decade of the 20th century it was being celebrated coast to coast by people of all social, racial and religious backgrounds.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Halloween across the Atlantic Ocean in Britain has eclipsed Valentine’s Day to become the third-biggest event, after Christmas and Easter, in terms of consumer spending,

Heffernan said his daughter, who lives in England, has confirmed that.

While sales of Halloween items in the United States are expected to slip by 6 percent this year to $6.9 billion, sales in Britain are forecast to grow 12 percent to $525 million, the Times reported.

“It’s celebrated more vigorously here than in Ireland,” Heffernan said.

Halloween name origins 

The word “Halloween” or “Hallowe’en” dates to about 1745 and is of Christian origin. It means “hallowed evening” or “holy evening” and comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before All Hallows’ Day. In Scots, the word “eve” is even, and this is contracted to e’en or een.

Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Halloween. Although the phrase “All Hallows’” is found in Old English, “All Hallows’ Eve” is not seen until 1556.

Halloween falls on the evening before the Christian holy days of All Hallows’ Day, also known as All Saints’, Hallowmas or Hallowtide, on Nov. 1 and All Souls’ Day Nov. 2, thus giving the holiday the full name of All Hallows’ Eve.

Since the time of the early church, major feasts such as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost had vigils that began the night before, as did the feast of All Hallows’.

These three days are collectively referred to as Hallowmas and are a time for honoring the saints and praying for the recently departed souls who have yet to reach heaven.

Why was date moved?

All Saints was introduced in the year 609, but was originally celebrated on May 13.

In 835, it was switched to Nov. 1, the same date as Samhain, at the behest of Pope Gregory IV.

Some suggest this was because of Celtic influence, while others suggest it was a Germanic idea.

Heffernan said it simply was the Catholic Church evangelizing to the pagan Irish it was trying to convert.

After Martin Luther sparked the Reformation in 1539, Protestants, including the Church of England and the Puritans who arrived in the United States in the 1600s, took a dim view of Halloween.

“It’s not a Protestant festival,” Heffernan said, adding that today many Protestant churches “emasculate” Halloween by de-emphasizing the monsters and scariness.

Wikipedia also suggests that the change was made on the “practical grounds that Rome in summer could not accommodate the great number of pilgrims who flocked to it” and perhaps because of public health considerations regarding Roman fever, a disease that claimed a number of lives during the sultry summers of the region.

Maybe that’s what’s plaguing residents of the prison in this season’s “Walking Dead” instead of the flu.

Anyway, happy Halloween now that you know some of the origins and background of the holiday.

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