by Jean Henry Mead
Halloween isn't just an American holiday. It originated in Ireland, where it was originally known as Oiche Shamhna or Samhain Night. The end of summer Agricultural Fire Festival was held for the deceased who were said to revisit the earth on that night. So the practice of building large community bonfires was enacted to ward off evil spirits. The name Hallowe’en evolved from All Hallow’s Eve, and the holiday was imported from Ireland during the 19th century. Halloween spread to other countries, including Puerto Rico, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada as well as the rest of the British Isles.
In 837, Pope Gregory decreed that All Hallows, or All Saints Day, previously known as Feast of Lemures, would be held every year on November 1, in the name of the Western Catholic Church. Previously celebrated on May 13 in other countries, it coincided with the Irish Samhain. During the 9th century, the two holidays were celebrated on the same day because the Church decided that the religious holiday would start at sunset the previous night, according to the Florentine calendar. All Saints Day was celebrated in northern European countries, and was a day of religious festivities. Until 1970, it was also a day of fasting.
The jack-o-lantern originated in Europe and was carved from turnips and rutabagas. Small candles were inserted in the hollow vegetables and they were used as lanterns. Because the human head was believed to contain the spirit, the Celts carved the vegetables to represent heads to ward off evil spirits. According to Irish legend, a hard-drinking farmer named Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree, where he was temporarily trapped. Farmer Jack then carved a cross in the tree, which condemned the devil to wander the earth at night with a candle inside a hollow turnip.
Carved pumpkins are a North American custom, originating with the fall harvest, and known to have preceded the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49. Carved pumpkins, or jack-o-lanterns, were not associated with Halloween in this country until the mid 19th century.
In Scotland, the embers of huge bonfires built in the villages were taken home to form circles. A stone for each family member was then placed inside the circle. The Scots believed that if one of the stones was displaced or broken by the following morning, the person it represented was doomed to die within a year. Northern residents of Wales built bonfires called Coel Coeth in every village. Members of each household would throw white stones into the ashes bearing their names. If any stone was missing the following morning, that person was destined to die before the following Halloween.
The village of Fortingall in Perthshire held a festival of fire, or Samhnag. Every Halloweeen they danced around the fire in both directions. As the fire burned low, young boys grabbed embers from the flames and raced around the field, tossing them in the air and then dancing around them. Later, they would have a jumping contest over the collected embers. When finished, they returned home to bob for apples. They also practiced diviniation, the art of foretelling the future or interpreting omens.
Halloween wasn’t celebrated in Mexico until around 1960. Our southern neighbors have followed our customs of costuming their children and allowing them to visit neighborhood homes, seeking candy. When they knock or ring the bell, the children say, "¡Noche de Brujas, Halloween!" which means "Witches' Night, Halloween!" Young people have Halloween parties and the holiday lasts for three days prior to All Saint’s Day, which is also the start of the two-day celebration of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
In the Netherlands, Halloween has become popular since the early 1990s. Children dress up for parades and parties, but trick-or-treating is rare because the holiday is so close to St. Martin’s Day. St. Martin’s is the day when Dutch children ring doorbells and sing a song dedicated to the saint, in exchange for small treats.
Romanians, regardless of age, party and parade in costumes not unlike North Americans, but the holiday focuses on Dracula. In the town of Sighisoara, where countless witch trials were once held, parties are held in the spirit of Dracula. Actors also reenact the witch trails on Halloween.
Some South American countries, influenced by American pop culture, celebrate Halloween, which has caused consternation among a number of Christian groups, who deplore the lack of attention to the more spiritual aspects of All Hallows Eve. But businesses profit from the sales of costumes and candy, so the holiday has been allowed to remain a favorite of young people. The same is true in Japan, Spain and Germany, among other countries.