What Is Halloween?

dark photo of a lit jack-o-lanternEvery year on the evening of October 31 children in the US and Canada put on costumes and go door to door asking for candy. Some adults put on costume parties. TV networks and theaters air horror movie reruns.

But why?

Halloween is a corruption of the term All Hallow E'en or  All Hallows Eve, the day in the Christian liturgical year before All Hallows Day, a.k.a. All Saints' Day, which is followed by All Souls' Day. In Catholic tradition it's the time when one  is supposed to remember the dead. In the Middle Ages some believed All Hallows Eve was when the souls of the dead wandered the earth. In some societies it was also believed that witches gathered to meet on that night, a sort of last hurrah before All Saints' Day, when the powers of good were believed to be at their strongest.

In the late Middle Ages  poor people in England and Ireland would go door to door on All Hallows' Eve asking for food, offering in return to pray for the souls of the dead.  In Scotland the custom took on an interesting variation: young men would go from house with their faces blackened and threatened to make a little trouble if they didn't get money or food (you can see where this is going...).

When the Puritans and Pilgrims settled in New England, they brought with them an intense dislike of such customs and of the observance of days such as All Saints' Day (or even Christmas), all of which they associated with Catholic superstition and corruption.  However, in the Southern colonies some of the less rigid Anglicans continued to observe a few of the old ways, as did the setters of the Catholic colony of Maryland.

But Halloween as we know it really took hold in the US after the nineteenth-century mass migrations of Irish and Scots. In addition to the old All Hallows' Eve customs, these two peoples  brought with them a strong belief in supernatural beings: fairies (which the Irish called aos sí,* and the Scots brownies), vampires, demon women,  and myriad other creatures.  The combination of these ancient traditions and beliefs with a gradually secularizing and increasingly consumerist society gave birth to modern Halloween, with jack-o-lanterns, costumes, horror movies, and candy made just for the season.  Toward the century's end the holiday appeared to have been accepted even by future society ladies. In Nov. 1891 a writer for The Boston Globe noted with amusement that the last week of October the young ladies of Wellesley College had transformed themselves into "rollicking, much-bedecked brownies...endeavoring to outdo [each other] in quaintness and gaiety of costume."

*Pronounced "ee-shee."

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