All Saints Festival, The History of Halloween
All About Halloween History: Learn about the history of Halloween and how the people celebrate it with this educational story. Learn the facts about Halloween to help teach kids to understand why so many people celebrate Halloween around the world and have fun with it. Every 31 October in the USA, in Britain and increasingly in places as diverse as Japan, Slovenia and India, costumed children cry “trick or treat” at the doors of neighbor’s, hoping for sweets or money. To the British ear, this may seem to be yet another American import but the progress of such customs through time is more complex than that.
Most people believe 31 October is an ancient pagan festival associated with the supernatural. In fact, it has religious connotations. In medieval Britain, ‘Halloween’ was the eve of the Catholic festival All Saints or All-Hallows (from Old English ‘Holy Man’) on 1 November, and was followed by the feast of All Souls on 2 November. Much of the modern supernatural lore surrounding Halloween was invented as recently as the 19th century. Scots and Irish settlers brought the custom of Mischief Night visiting to North America, where it became known as ‘trick or treat’. Until the revival of interest in Halloween during the 1970s, this American tradition was largely unknown in England.
In pre-Christian Ireland, 1 November was known as ‘Samhain’ (summer’s end). This date marked the onset of winter in Gaelic-speaking areas of Britain. It was also the end of the pastoral farming year, when cattle were slaughtered and tribal gatherings such as the Irish Feis of Tara were held. In the 19th century the anthropologist Sir James Frazer popularized the idea of Samhain as an ancient Celtic festival of the dead, when pagan religious ceremonies were held. The Catholic tradition of offering prayers to the dead, the ringing of church bells and lighting of candles and torches on 1 November provides the link with the spirit world. In medieval times, prayers were said for souls trapped in purgatory on 1 November. This was believed to be a sort of ‘halfway house’ on the road to Heaven, and it was thought their ghosts could return to earth to ask relatives for assistance in the journey.
Popular Halloween customs in England included ‘souling’, where groups of adults – and later children wearing costumes – visited big houses to sing and collect money and food. Souling was common in parts of Cheshire, Shropshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire on 1 and 2 November. In parts of northern England, special cakes were baked and left in churchyards as offerings to the dead. The genesis of Halloween costumes may date back over 2,000 years. Historians consider the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain, which marked summer’s end and the beginning of the year’s “darker” half in the British Isles, to be the holiday’s precursor.
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