The origins of today's celebration on October 31st trace back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. In the Celtic year, November 1st was the beginning of the new year. Samhain marked the transition from life to death. During this time, the crops have been harvested, and animals were slaughtered to prepare food for the long, dark winter. The Druids had all fires estinguished, and created a huge bonfire on this night, burning sacred oak branches, along with sacrifices to mark the end of the sun's reign. Sacrifices included crops, animals, and many times humans.
Because the lives of the Celts were deeply intertwined with nature, the death of the world around them became associated with human death. During this time, it was believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead were thinnest. The living were able to communicate with their dead loved ones during Samhain.
Trick or treating may have developed from the custom of people leaving food out for the spirits that were believed to wander the earth during this time. Another theory is that it developed from the celebration honoring Muck Olla, where a parade of people begged for food. The leader of the parade wore a mask, which may have been the origin of the Halloween costume.
Of course, if the spirits were able to travel between the worlds on Samhain, so too could malevolent spirits. To scare these baddies away, the Celts carved faces into turnips and lit them with candles. Scary costumes were also worn to scare the bad spirits.
Feralia, the Roman festival of the dead, was later combined with Samhain. With the Christianization of the Celtic people, the Church found that old habits died hard. because the Celtic people weren't easily willing to give up their traditions, the Church tried to replace Samhain with All Saints' Day, a day to celebrate dead saints. Witches (those who dared to follow the old ways against the will of the Church) and evil demons were said to ride that night, doing the Devil's bidding.
Halloween didn't become widely celebrated in the United States until the 1800s. Immigrants from Ireland and Scotland were beginning to settle in the U.S., and brought many of their customs with them. The New World provided pumpkins, which were more suitable as lanterns, and are a major symbol of modern Halloween.
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