While St. Patrick's Day is the observance most closely associated with the Irish, Halloween might just be the quintessential Irish American celebration. Its origins are based on the festival of the dead called Samhain (pronounced "sow-ween"), the most important day of the Celtic calendar as November 1 marked the beginning of a new year.
Samhain was a celebration preceding the long winter months when food supplies ran low. It marked the beginning of the harvest of crops for storage during the winter and the return of animal herds from their summer pastures.
The Celts also believed that Samhain was the time of the year when the ghosts of the dead revisited the living before heading to Tir na nOg (the land of eternal youth and happiness). The Celts sacrificed animals, fruits, and vegetables to the spirits.
They also lit bonfires both to honor the dead - and to prevent them from frightening the living. People took to disguising themselves to confuse the spirits who had evil intentions and placed bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts.
As St. Patrick and later missionaries spread Christianity across Ireland, they encouraged the converts to give up their pagan holidays such as Samhain. Pope Gregory I issued an edict to his missionaries that rather than making pagan worshippers renounce their practices totally, they should allow the native observances to be incorporated into Christianity. Church holy days were purposely set to coincide with native observances. For instance, Christmas, which is never identified in the bible as Dec. 25, was assigned the date to correspond with the winter solstice celebrations.
Although missionaries let converts hold onto some traditions, they branded the pagan deities and spirits as evil. Pope Boniface IV established All Saints' Day to replace the pagan festival of the dead. Gregory III later moved the holiday from May 13 to November 1 to honor saints, martyrs and all the dead who did not have a day named in their honor. Thus, Oct. 31 became All Hallows' Eve ('hallow' means 'saint') - a fusion of pagan practices and Christian tradition.
In Ireland, turnips were often carved as representations of the souls of the dead. It was believed that spirits encountered things equally fiendish looking, they would flee in terror. So how did the pumpkin become the basis for a lantern named Jack? Irish folklore said that a blacksmith named Jack made a pact with the Devil and was thus denied entrance into Heaven. Doomed to wander the Earth in darkness, Jack carved a lantern out of a turnip to light his way. When the Irish came to America, they found pumpkins in greater abundance than turnips. Thus, the big orange gourds became the source of the Jack O'Lantern, and they have become an essential part of Halloween celebrations ever since.
Irish author Bram Stoker wrote his famous vampire novel in 1897 after researching European folklore and stories of vampires. The title character is based on "Vlad the Impaler," a 15th century Romanian prince. (The word dracul means serpent or demon in the Romanian language.)
A werewolf is a person who transforms into a wolf after being placed under a curse. The transformation coincides with the appearance of the full moon. A werewolf can only be killed if shot by a silver bullet. Lon Chaney, Jr. portrayed Larry Talbot in the 1941 classic film The Wolf Man, in which Talbot beats to death a wolf that attacks a beautiful woman. During the struggle, Talbot is bitten by the wolf, which seals his fate. Many European countries have stories of werewolves, including Ireland (faoladh or conriocht), Germany (Werwolf), Greece (lycanthropos), and Spain (hombre lobo).
Witches are thought to have magical powers to cast spells and may be of either gender -- although male witches are sometimes called warlocks. In Christian countries, witches have negative or evil connotations. The Wicked Witch of the West played by Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz (1939) has scared generations of children.
When the spirits of the dead wandered among the living at Samhain, they tried to return to their former homes. People offered fruits of the harvest in hopes that the ghosts would be satisfied and refrain from destroying flocks and property. This custom evolved into a "Mischief Night" in which humans played pranks and formed the basis of "trick-or-treating." As the Irish flocked to America as a result of the potato famine, they brought their traditions with them, including Samhain.
Today, Halloween is more about neighborly get-togethers than restless ghosts and witchcraft. Parties for children focus on games, foods of the season, and festive, rather than frightening, costumes. Communities increasingly embraced the tradition of giving children small treats. Trick-or-treating boomed in the post-WWII era, in part driven by the marketing practices of candy companies.
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