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Happy (European) Halloween!

October 26, 2012

As children and children-at-heart around the United States prepare their costumes and stock up on candy, other places around the world are gearing up for their own celebrations this Halloween weekend. In fact, our American celebration of Halloween owes its origins to our European ancestors. Though Halloween celebrations throughout Europe have become increasingly “Americanized,” the first mid-autumn revelers were around long before the United States existed.

Though the American celebration of Halloween is influenced by traditions from many cultures, the beginning of Halloween in the US comes from Ireland. In the 19th century, Irish immigrants were the second largest immigration population in the US, and with them they brought their traditions connected to the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain. Samhain was a religious celebration that marked the end of summer and a time when the veil between our world and the spirit world was thought to be at its very thinnest. Because of this, people disguised themselves to confuse malevolent spirits, leaving hot food on the doorstep to appease them. The night of Samhain was seen to be a mystical time when Celtic priests could better see the future and predict the fortunes of those around them. Ireland was not the only place celebrations were held at this time of year, however. The other British Isles had similar traditions influenced by the Celtic Samhain. On the Isle of Man, it was traditional to carve a turnip much as pumpkins are carved today.

Eventually, it is generally accepted that this holiday was appropriated by the Christian church as the Celts were converted to Christianity. A letter from Pope Gregory I in the 6th century urging missionaries to absorb existing pagan holidays into the Christian calendar corroborates this theory. It is from this conversion that we get the notion of “All Hallows’ Eve,” as November 1 has served as All Saints’ Day for the Catholic Church since the 8th century. Today, Halloween has traveled back to Europe in an “Americanized” version, complete with children in costumes trick or treating and Halloween parties. Halloween can be found in Europe to varying degrees and in differing manifestations, depending on the region; many such celebrations retain facets of the ancient Celtic holidays, including turnip carving in some parts of Britain. The Halloween we know in the US is celebrated mostly by the younger generation, and this new phenomenon is not universally loved by the older generations expected to provide the candy.

So, in whatever way you celebrate it, have a happy and safe October 31!

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