Editor’s note: This column originally published in The Dispatch’s Oct. 30, 2011 edition.
For 800 years, Halloween has been an important, meaningful and fun celebration. However, a look today at Halloween around the country would lead one to believe that it’s a time to commercially exploit pagan themes and children. What is being lost is that it actually reflects an almost 2,000-year-old Christian tradition.
Halloween is a contraction of Hallow, which means holy, and even, which means evening. So, Halloween means Holy Evening. It is derived from one of the oldest Christian celebrations, and its origins date prior to 270 A.D. First called All Martyrs Day, it later became known as All Hallows or All Saints Day. It was a time to celebrate those who had given their lives for Christ.
By 824 A.D., the celebration was being held on Nov. 1. Following ancient tradition, the celebration began after sunset on the day before. Thus, it was All Hallows Eve or Halloween. The date selected for All Saints Day coincided with the date of a pagan festival, but like on the dates set for Christmas and Easter, the Christian celebration replaced the pagan.
During the 10th century, the day after All Saints Day was set aside to remember all family and friends who had died. That day became known as All Souls Day and it became popular to visit cemeteries on that day.
There are many traditions associated with the All Hallows celebration. These range from church services and decorating cemeteries to the ever popular trick-or-treating. The giving of sweets to children probably originated in Europe or Ireland about 1,000 years ago. People would go door to door on All Souls Day begging for small cakes called “soul cakes.” The recipient of a “soul cake” was expected to say prayers for the souls of deceased members of the giver’s family.
One tradition says that the wearing of costumes representing ghosts or witches was much like a passion play. Children would dress up as evil but would be treated with cakes of kindness. They would then go home, eat their cakes, take off their costumes and go to bed. They would awake on All Hallows morning to attend church, evil having been vanquished by sweet cakes of Christian kindness.
As America was settled, European immigrants brought their traditions with them. The evening before All Saints day was a time for parties for both adults and children. All Saints Day was a day of Church services and the following day, All Souls Day, was a time to place flowers on the graves of deceased family and friends.
After the Civil War, Decoration Day and later Memorial Day began to replace All Souls Day as the day to remember those who had died and to decorate cemeteries with flowers. That was the beginning of the end of the traditional celebrations of All Saints and All Souls Day. By the 1920s, Halloween was generally viewed as a secular, community-centered festival with most of its Christian heritage lost or forgotten.
Today, for most people, Halloween is a secular celebration with few realizing that for almost 1,800 years it was actually a part of the important Christian celebration and remembrance of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.
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