The Evolution and Lost Origins of Halloween
As the Northern Hemisphere bids farewell to long hours of sunshine, change flows in with tales of autumn preparing for winter. Our ancestors considered Halloween to be a time where the veil between life and death were the thinnest. Nature’s rhythm ebbs and flows. The leaves prepare to fall and the trees begin to rest. It is here where loved ones who had passed away were said to make their way back on Earth to visit.
In our modern day, Halloween is widely celebrated and cherished for its fun-filled yet spooky atmosphere. However, the vast majority of the population observe this holiday without truly knowing what is being celebrated. We might begin to wonder about its origins and how our circling time and space might have influenced Halloween as we know it today.
Different Cultures, Similar Meanings
The myth of Persephone was how the Greeks explained the change of seasons and the eternal cycle of nature’s death and rebirth during ancient times. The story tells a tale of a young maiden, Persephone, daughter of Demeter (goddess of fertility) and Zeus (king of the gods). Persephone was kidnapped by Hades (god of the underworld) to be his wife. Upon the news, Demeter was heartbroken and begged for her daughter back. Due to Persephone eating the seeds of the pomegranate fruit in the underworld, Hades demanded she pays by spending time each year for every seed she consumed.
This resulted in Persephone spending half the year with her family on Mt. Olympus and the remaining half in the Underworld. Greek mythology explains the change of seasons through the story of Persephone. The school of Eleusinian Mystery initiated a yearly ritual based on a symbolic reading of the myth. Those who participated in these rituals were said to have benefited in the sense of being freed from the fear of death. Just as Persephone weaved between the Underworld, Earth, and the Heavens so would every human being die only to birth again.
While this ritual isn’t necessarily how we identify with Halloween today, the end of the ceremony revealed a vision of the holy night (Halloween = Hallow’s Even, the holy evening).
Perhaps more popularly known is the Mexican tradition, Day of the Dead (Dia de Los Muertos), recognized annually to celebrate loved ones who have passed. This day can be traced back to ancient cultures including the Aztecs and the Mayans. Originally observed toward the beginning of the fall, it was the Spanish that moved the celebration to coincide with the Catholic All Saints/All Souls Day to convert locals. A common theme in their celebrations included the display of skulls to symbolize death and rebirth.
Cultures worldwide have their own stories behind these practices, but the meanings prove to be similar to one another – death and rebirth. For example, Buddhist beliefs view changing seasons as a symbolic crossing from illusion to enlightenment.
The modern take on Halloween previously referred to as Samhain, originated from the Celtic calendar. Samhain was a three-day celebration acknowledging the ending of the lighter half of the year while inviting in the darker half. As Christianity began to establish power in various parts of Europe, Samhain was modified in the attempt to convert the masses.
Costumes, Jack-o-Lanterns, Tricks, and Treats
The flux in seasons created a time for people to gather and celebrate the harvest, a new beginning, and spend time with loved ones. While there are many aspects of a community, this moment in the thinning of the veil between two worlds also invited the darker parts of the spiritual realm such as evil, demons, monsters, and tricks.
People of the town would dress in costumes and wear masks in hopes of scaring off the evil spirits. Pumpkins were carved and placed on front doorsteps to ward off demons and the child-snatchers. During these times, it has been said that officials would dress as demons (to steer blame away from the king) and abduct children for slave-work. Families would leave treats outside of their homes to please the demons and steer them away.
The rise of “tricks and treats” was made popular by America around the 1920s. Pranks were on the rise as times grew violent during harsh moments like the Great Depression and World War II only to turn sweet afterward once rationing ended and candies were available.
Perhaps a very well-known “trick” had less to do with sweets and more with the mind. The radio broadcast of H.G. Well’s “War of the Worlds,” swarmed listeners with fear and confusion on its debut on October 30, 1938. Welles ended the performance by saying, “boo” and reminding the audience it was all a show.
As Christianity took over the Celtic tradition of Samhain, perhaps it is capitalism’s influence we are under the spell of today. In 2017, Halloween spending was estimated to reach $9.1 billion. Mainstream media such as movies and other outlets helped grow Halloween as one of America’s top commercial holidays. While the origins aren’t at the forefront of today’s celebrations, many of the traditions such as dressing up and carving pumpkins are still put into practice.
There is no correct way to celebrate Halloween. Some may choose to binge on horror movies, cast spells, trick or treat, or dress up for a party. As mentioned above, different cultures have their own origins and stories for this holiday. As cultures change and evolve, Halloween will always remind us of the mysteries in nature as well as the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.