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From Celts to the world: The story of Hallow’s Eve

From drunk Jacks becoming spirits to wander the Earth to bobbing apples for future lovers, Halloween has evolved into the beloved festival that it is today.

Jasmine Singh

“You can dress up as anything and take a break from your real self. And I love making these costumes, disguising myself and also in the process taking something that I like from the person I dressed up as,” says Mahita Valluri, a college student. Halloween is celebrated all over the world and people have transformed it into a festival of candy, trick or treat and fun costumes. However, the day when ghosts and spirits are believed to come alive wasn’t always like this.

The origin of Halloween goes back almost 2000 years to the Celtic festival of Samhain. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.

To keep these evil spirits away, people lit bonfires and wore masks and disguised themselves. These disguises are what are associated with Halloween today. Once the celebration was over, they would relight their hearth fires from the bonfires to protect themselves from the winter.

Later when the Romans conquered the Celts, they added their own festivals of Feralia, a Remembrance Day for the dead, and Pomona, the goddess of the harvest. Then in the 7th century, Christian traditions introduced All Saints ’Day also known as All Hallows ’Day on November 1, making the previous day i.e. October 31 known as Hallow’s Eve or Halloween. But the name Halloween was made famous only after Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote a poem in 1785 with the same name. Thus, Halloween as it is known today accredits its origins to Celtic and Catholic traditions.

Dressing up and trick-or-treating were encouraged by parents to avoid pranks and acts of vandalism.

The modern day “trick or treating” is a mixture of many traditions. In medieval England, “soulers” would go around begging rich people for “soul cakes” on Halloween in exchange for prayers for the dead. Throughout medieval Europe, the practice of “mumming” and “guising”, in which people would disguise themselves and go door-to-door, asking for food, while dancing, playing music, and doing tricks was famous. Irish and Scottish immigrants brought “souling” to the United States during the 1800s but it wasn’t popular until World War II before that American child were believed to go out on Thanksgiving and ask for food.

By the late 1800s, the tradition of playing tricks on Halloween was well established. In the United States and Canada, the pranks included tipping over outhouses, opening farmers' gates and egging houses. But by the 1920s and 1930s, the celebrations more closely resembled an unruly block party, and the acts of vandalism got more serious. Pranking was starting to get dangerous and out of hand, parents and town leaders began to encourage dressing up and trick-or-treating as a safe alternative to doing pranks.

There are many other rituals that people believe in during Halloween. From the Irish folklore of Jack O'Lantern. Jack—a conniving drunkard who tricked the Devil from taking his soul to hell and wasn’t allowed in heaven, making his soul wander the Earth till date. To bobbing for apples looking for future spouses− girls would secretly mark apples before tipping them into a tub of water. Apples would float and the person to take out the apple with the girl’s name would be their destined spouse. The tradition of using apple peels was also used by girls to determine their romantic destiny.

“I love the candies, chocolates and the end of October air which is filled with this weird peppy spirit and the anticipation of cool evenings and cosy days” adds Valluri. After borrowing from so many varied traditions and folklores, Halloween has become the beloved festival that we know it as today. The festival that involved soul cakes, several years back, has turned into dressing up as your favourite pop culture figure and buying candy bars being sold at shops, today. So, from ritual practices to ward of spirits, it became a day of partying, dancing and town-wide parades.

Edited by Kriti Soneja and Sidhant Koshi