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 For a proper understanding of the  modern American celebration on October 31st., we must look at three  early celebrations that have come together to form today's Halloween.

The first of these precursors to  Halloween goes all the way back to pre-Christian Ireland and Scotland to a celebration of the Druids or Celtic priests. The Celtic year began on November 1st with the festival of Samhain. On the eve of Samhain,  October 31st, laughing bands of young people disguised in grotesque  masks carved lanterns from turnips and carried them through the  villages. It was sort of a harvest festival, and in addition, it was  thought of as a festival of the dead. The druids believed it was on that night when the earth comes into closest contact with the spiritual  world; and consequently ghosts, goblins and witches supposedly destroyed crops, killed farm animals and wreaked havoc on the villagers. As these spirits of the dead roamed around, villagers lighted bonfires to either drive them away or to guide the spirits of the dead back to their  homes.

The second precursor to Halloween  goes back to the Dark Ages in central Europe. There, the Christian  church destroyed many of the temples of various pagan gods and  goddesses, such as Diana and Apollo. However, this pagan worship was  never completely eradicated and took on the form of witchcraft. One of  the most important aspects of witchcraft is a number of celebrations  each year which are called "Witches' Sabbaths." One of the highest of  the Witches' Sabbaths is the High Sabbath or the Black Sabbath of  Witches on October 31st. Much of the Halloween folklore of today such as black cats, broomsticks, cauldrons and spells come from the Black  Sabbath.

The third precursor to Halloween goes back to the early Roman Catholic Church. The church had appointed  certain days to honor each saint and basically ran out of days in the  year for all their saints to have a day, so they decided to have one day to remember all the saints. They called it All Saints' Day. In the  eighth century, Pope Gregory the third changed All Saints' Day from May  13th to November 1st, and in the year 834 Pope Gregory the fourth  extended this celebration to the entire Roman church. This event was  called Allhallowmass, and as you might suppose, there was a celebration  on the evening before on October 31st, called All Hallow E'en, "all  hallow" meaning all of the hallowed ones. As you might guess, the  contraction of hallow and e'en is where the word Halloween is derived.

The modern custom of going door to  door begging for candy while dressed in costumes called "trick or  treating," goes back to the pagan new year's feast in Ireland. The  spirits that were thought to throng about the houses of the living were  greeted with a banquet. At the end of the feast, villagers disguised as  souls of the dead, paraded to the outskirts of the village leading the  spirits away. This was done to avoid any calamities the dead might  bring. Another way the villagers tried to appease the dead was to set  out bowls of fruit and other treats so the spirits would partake of them and leave them in peace. Later when the belief in ghosts and goblins  declined, youths dressed up as ghosts and goblins and threatened to play tricks on those who failed to be generous with treats. The  jack-o-lantern, also known as will-o-the-wisp, fox fire and corpse  candle, among other things, was believed to be a wandering soul which  could not find refuge in either heaven or hell because of a particularly evil deed committed in its lifetime. The Finns believed that it was the soul of a child buried in the forest. A corpse candle is said to be a  small flame moving through the air in the dark and is believed by the  superstitious to be an omen of the observers imminent death.

 According to ancient folklore from  many places, a will-o-the-wisp wanders about swamp areas, enticing  victims to follow. These strange fires were also known as "foolish  fire," because only a fool would follow them. Today's pumpkin face is  symbolic of that mocking spirit.

It is always wise to look into any customs associated with holidays and be aware of their roots.

Origin of name

The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Eve, that is, the night before All Hallows Day. Although the phrase All Hallows is found in Old English (ealra hálena mssede, the feast of all saints), All-Hallows-Even is itself not attested until 1556. Thus there is no evidence of the term for this day before the 16th century Reformation.

302px-Maclise.snap.apple.night
Snap-Apple Night by Daniel Maclise showing a Halloween party in  Blaney, Ireland, in 1832. The young children on the right bob for  apples. A couple in the center play a variant, which involves retrieving an apple hanging from a string. The couples at left play divination  games.

 

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