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.