The History of Halloween

Was that a witch whizzing through the air? A ghost peeking around that twisted tree stump? A vampire stalking you through the cemetery? Could be – the howling winds of October are upon us and with them come all sorts of otherworldly creatures and customs. Historians are divided on Halloween’s true origins; some believe the holiday is based on the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, while others take it back as far as Roman celebrations of ancestors and the dead. Just about everybody agrees that the Halloween we celebrate today is based in the old Christian holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which were reserved for praying for the recently departed who had yet to reach heaven.

The word “Halloween” itself is likely a Scottish variant on the title “All Hallows Eve,” the day before All Saints Day, and was first seen in the 15th century.   Today, Halloween is second only to Christmas in retail sales, and is rapidly gaining due to increasing interest in decorating our homes and yards; yet Halloween celebrations remained largely the domain of Ireland and Scotland, reaching North America in the mid-19th century when immigrants from those countries brought their traditions to the United States. From carving pumpkins to asking for candy, here’s a quick look at those traditions and their meaning.

Jack o’Lanterns

A favorite for many families, the carving of pumpkins began with the humble turnip. A British term dating from the 17th century, “jack o’lantern” literally means “man with a lantern.” Catholic children in the British Isles carried hollowed-out turnips (more likely rutabagas, not the small turnips we eat here) with carved faces, lit by a candle, as they went door-to-door begging for soul cakes on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day. When Irish and Scottish families began settling in the United States, they traded the turnip for the more readily available pumpkin, and our pumpkin carving tradition began.

Bobbing for Apples

No Halloween party is complete without a tub full of water and apples. While potentially messy, bobbing for apples has been a traditional game for at least a few hundred years. Again originating in Ireland and Scotland, it was most likely a divination (or fortune-telling) game. Partygoers would attempt to catch an apple in their mouths, peel it carefully in one piece, throw the peel over their shoulders, and turn around to find it in the shape of the first initial of their true love’s name.

Trick or Treating

One of the most beloved sights of Halloween are the parades of children dressed in their costumes and makeup, roaming the neighborhood and begging door-to-door for treats. Trick-or-treating has its roots in the Middle Ages custom of Christmas wassailing, when people went door to door asking for food and drink. It also resembles the medieval practice of “souling,” when poor people canvassed neighbors asking for food in exchange for prayers for the dead.

However you choose to celebrate Halloween, the Jellystone Park™ Camp-Resorts team wishes you happy haunting!   Click here for Fall and Halloween events at Jellystone campgrounds. 

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