Modern-day Halloween may look very different from what it originated as, but there are still elements of those ancient traditions that have morphed and carried through to today. While every culture on the planet has its own time of the year when they celebrate the dead or acknowledge a time when the “veil” between this life and the next is thin, allowing spirits to once again walk the earth, what we celebrate every Oct. 31 stems from Celtic traditions and those autumnal events developed in what is present-day Great Britain and Ireland.

The Celts celebrated their new year around the end of October in a festival called Samhain (pronounced “sow-in” or “sah-win”) which meant “summer’s end,” which marked the end of harvest and time to prepare for the dark days of winter. As with all ends, it also had connections to that of human death, and as such, the Druids believed that this was the time when any spirit lost in the year leading up to Samhain would wander the earth that night.

While meeting up with the spirit of a loved one now gone seems great, there was also the thought that other not-so-friendly ghosts might try and possess a human body or generally torment the living, so the Celts would paint their faces with soot from large fires that were lit to dispose of bones (bonfires), obscuring their features and therefore eliminating the chance of an unwanted sprite, elf or more sinister force interacting with you.

Of course, with many pagan celebrations, the foundations were often co-opted by the Christian church in a way to convert the masses as their influence spread across Europe. Besides integrating various stories of both religious practices, in the eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved All Saint’s Day, or All Hallows Day — a feast day set by Pope Boniface IV a century earlier to celebrate the saints who didn’t have a day of their own — to Nov. 1. Some scholars believe he did so in order to turn Samhain into All Hallows Eve, a night of prayer in preparation for the following feast day.

But many traditions remained, if turned slightly, and new traditions emerged, including the practice of “souling” where the poor would go door to door asking for soul cake in return for prayers.

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The Brits also kept bonfires, but moved them to Nov. 5, when they celebrated the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot with Guy Fawkes Day and the apparent triumph of Protestantism. On this day people would drink and feast while children would don masks and go from house to house demanding money and threatening vandalism to the houses who refused.

Then the Brits and Irish sailed west to the U.S. and Canada and brought their traditions with them, adding in the Irish practice of carving jack-o’-lanterns (they originally used turnips until they found that pumpkins worked better) and carrying them with them while going souling.

Those threads remained and stayed strong until the early 20th century, when folks began getting annoyed with the vandalism associated with Halloween. One ingenious Kansas woman hoped to tire the kids out before their mischief could commence, so she threw them a party full of music, a costume contest and a parade. The first year, it didn’t work, but the second year she got the whole town involved, which lead to success.

Along the way, souling and the begging for money on Guy Fawkes Day somehow morphed into the practice of trick-or-treating, and by the 1950s, Halloween took its final form in the U.S. and Canada, eventually erupting back over the pond and evolving into the costumed masses of children going door to door and begging for candy from strangers.

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Reporter: 541-383-0304, mwhittle@bendbulletin.com

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