Photos from the Vault

Halloween has a long and colorful history

On Halloween night 1979, Raven Schlossberg clutches her hands and screams at a costumed Bruce Smith at Theta Chi haunted house in San Luis Obispo. Her friend, Tawny Claussen, also let out a shriek.
On Halloween night 1979, Raven Schlossberg clutches her hands and screams at a costumed Bruce Smith at Theta Chi haunted house in San Luis Obispo. Her friend, Tawny Claussen, also let out a shriek.

It is Oct. 31, so Happy New Year’s Eve, everybody!

You knew that is what Halloween is all about, right?

Telegram-Tribune reporter Teresa Mariani explained in this article from Oct. 26, 1996:

Celebrations of Halloween are rich with history

So exactly why are you buying bags of candy, carving pumpkins, and staying up late sewing children’s costumes every October?

For New Year’s, it turns out.

Two-thousand years ago, Oct. 31 was New Year’s Eve in Europe.

Only it wasn’t called Halloween then — it was called Samhain, the festival that started the night before New Year’s Day, Nov. 1 on the Celtic calendar.

And anywhere the Celts were — England, Ireland, Scotland and France — the festival marked the turn of the season form autumn to winter.

It was on big ancient harvest party, complete with bonfires on the hills, lots of treats, and after the drinking got going, probably some tricks too.

The Druids — Celtic priests — were convinced Oct. 31 was one of those times of the year the line between this world and the spirit world was pretty thin, or disappeared altogether.

So Druids started the tradition of dressing in costumes that night — to outwit the spirits of the dead who were supposed to be hovering around.

In case any of the ghosts had a bone to pick with you, that cow costume just might fool them.

And everyone stuck together in their costumes in big groups by big outdoor bonfires on that spooky night.

Then the Romans conquered the Celts around 43 A.D. and ran thing in France and Britain for the next 400 years or so. They combined their two autumn festivals with Samhain.

One of them, Feralia, was held in late October and also honored the dead. The other honored Pomona, the Roman Goddess of fruit and trees — bringing apples into the Halloween act.

Then the Romans folded and went back to Italy, but the Oct. 31 Samhain-Feralia-Pomona festival remained.

When early Christianity took hold of Northern Europe around the 800s, the festival changed.

Wild harvest partying was frowned on.

The early church declared Nov. 1 a holy day called All Hallows Day, or All Saints Day.

“Hallowed” means “holy,” and the day honors saints. All Saints Day is still on the books for Catholics Nov. 1; Nov. 2 is All Souls Day — honoring the regular dead.

All Hallows Day started when the sun went down Oct. 31: All Hallows Eve.

Which, when people were saying, it turned into Hallows’eve, Hallow’e’en, the Halloween.

Meanwhile, kids, and poor people got into the act — going door to door that night.

They carried carved beets, potatoes or turnips with candles inside to light the way — the first jack-o-lanterns.

And they knocked on doors, offering to pray for the dead of the family in the house, in return for food.

In some places they got little shortbread cakes or scones or pastries called “soul cakes” in return. It was the start of trick-or-treating.

And like most good American party traditions, it came across the ocean hundreds of years later with a bunch of immigrants.

Irish Catholics flocking here after the great potato famine of the 1840s introduced Halloween to this country.

It was a hit. According to a survey by American Greetings, a big card and party gear manufacturer, Halloween is now the No. 3 party occasion in America, right behind No. 2 — The Super Bowl — and No. 1: New Year’s Eve.

Not everyone is buying into Halloween, though.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations don’t celebrate it. They don’t like the combination of pagan roots and extortion involved.

“If you go the the library, you’ll find that a lot of the holidays are all of pagan origin,” said Bo Bispo, a leader in one of the Central Coast Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations.

At worst, Halloween, he said, “Is (a holiday) trying to appease the dead. The Bible says if your dead, you’re dead.”

At best, Halloween is teaching kids extortion, he said. “What are you saying when you say, ‘trick-or-treat?’ Your are saying, ‘I’ll do damage to you if you don’t give me a treat.’”

His isn’t the only group unhappy with Halloween.

Witches, ghosts, and little devils aren’t exactly great role models for kids, other churches complain — along with their members.

The reason? Could it be … Satan?

Ever since the 800s, Oct. 31 has been rumored to be the night witches met to worship the devil.

That notion could have started with the Celts, who burned crop offerings and animal offerings to their gods on the Samhain bonfires.

The history books say that some of the Celts might have even tossed in humans as sacrifices that night, too.

The Celts apparently did that at other times of the year. They thought the gods wanted thieves and other criminals encased in huge wicker statues and torched.

But the history books also note that no one really knows for sure if that was the start of early Halloween.

The Celts didn’t leave written records on their festival traditions. The stuff about human sacrifices was written by the Romans, their conquerors.

It’s a case of bad press, latter-day Celts say. “Really bad press,” said Athena, a local witch and businesswoman.

Witches and pagans, she says, wouldn’t hurt a flea — much less boil someone in a cauldron or toss them in a bonfire on Halloween.

“Of all the witches I know — and there are a lot of us in this county — we all share a love of animals, a love of the Earth, and the space where we live, and we would never do anything to hurt any of that.”

The Satan-worshiping stuff is a vicious rumor, the witches say, started by those chauvinist male-dominated Romans and Christians.

“A witch is a healer. It was traditionally something that was a woman’s role, and it was something men didn’t understand, and feared. It all goes back to when the patriarchy grew, and overthrew the matriarchy,” she said.

So what is Halloween for witches? “It’s a time to celebrate, a time when everyone is celebrating the Earth,” she said. “And it’s the day I can be exactly who I want to be, and be accepted.”

She’s likely to keep on celebrating.

With Americans expected to spend $60 million on Halloween decorations and costumes this year and another $340 million on candy, Halloween isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

Hershey’s would never allow it.