Monday, October 31, 2011

In the Spirit of Halloween

My mystery/suspense novel, Mixed Messages, takes place the last week of October in 2008, which, of course, includes Halloween. As I was doing research for the book, I discovered some interesting facts about the combination secular and religious origin and history of the holiday.
The holiday we call Halloween originated with the ancient Celtic tribes who lived in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany. For the Celts, November 1 marked the beginning of the new year and the coming of winter. The night before the new year, they celebrated the festival of Samhain, Lord of the Dead, when they believed that the souls of the dead, including ghosts, goblins and witches, returned to walk among the living. In order to scare away the evil spirits, people would wear masks and light bonfires.
When the Romans conquered the Celts, they added a few rituals to the festival. They bobbed for apples and drank cider. However, in 835, Pope Gregory IV moved the celebration of what would be later called All Saints Day to November 1. The night before became known as All Hallow’s Eve. Eventually, the name was shortened to Halloween.
Stories of ghosts first became associated with Halloween in Ireland. The Irish believed that, if someone you knew had died the previous year and you were still holding a grudge against them, that person would appear to you on Halloween, startling you so badly that you would do anything to get rid of your grudge.
Our custom of trick-or-treating began in Ireland too. Groups of farmers would go door-to-door collecting food and materials for a village feast and bonfire. Those who gave were promised a good year; those who did not give got threats of bad luck. Costumes were symbolic; they were meant to scare away the evil spirits so that the next day, on All Saints Day, the saints could celebrate without fear. And, the following day, All Souls Day, people could remember those who had died, especially in their immediate families, secure in the knowledge that they were at peace. When a large number of Catholic immigrants came to the United States, they brought the custom of trick-or-treating with them.
 The custom of carving a pumpkin for Halloween also came from the Irish. People would hollow out turnips and place lighted candles inside to scare off the evil spirits. When the Irish came to America, they discovered the pumpkin and, because it was bigger, we now carve pumpkins instead of turnips for Halloween. We call the carved pumpkins jack-o-lanterns due to the legend of an Irishman named Jack who, as punishment for never having performed a single selfless act in his life, was forced to roam the earth with only a burning coal inside a pumpkin to light his way.
Happy Halloween!


  1. Patricia,

    Too cool! I'm just about to talk about Samhain in my Anthropology class in nine minutes! Today is the day when the gates that normally separate the world of the living from the world of the dead. What's interesting is that the Romans HAD to allow it. Much as they wanted to convert people to Christianity, they found that the Celts weren't about to give up their old holidays, so Samhain simply got reassigned to All Hallows Eve!

    William Doonan

  2. Carving pumpkins is probably a lot easier than carving a turnip. Everyone probably approved that switch.

  3. William,
    Wow! I wish I could sit in on your class! I'd love to hear your lecture.

    You made me laugh! You're right; I doubt if anyone would rather carve a turnip.

  4. Interesting facts! Many churches celebrate the Sunday before All Saints' Day by remember those who died the year before. I didn't know this church holiday (like most others) originated in pagan celebrations. Thanks for the post!
    Sally Carpenter

  5. Sally,
    I guess you never know what facts you'll discover when you do research for a novel. I'm sure you came up with a lot of interesting information when you researched for "The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper."

  6. I've never researched Holloween and only knew bits and pieces. Thanks for the information. Sometimes research can be boring, but it didn't sound like this was. Thanks for sharing!

    Marja McGraw

  7. Marja, you're right; this research was fun. Actually, I needed the information because my main character's daughter, Danielle, was writing a report for school. She's an eight-year-old perfectionist so I had to have my facts straight!

  8. Patricia, I've always loved this time of year when the doors are open to spirit world. Thanks for posting on this wonderful topic.