Halloween falls on 31 October every year and is celebrated mainly in the United States and England, although in recent decades it has also taken hold in many other countries, including Italy.
During the night between the 31st and the 1st of November, children, but often adults as well, go from house to house masquerading as monstrous creatures for the famous “trick or treat” ritual: the inhabitants of the house can then save themselves from the terrible macabre tinged jokes only by giving sweets to the children.
Origin of Halloween: the Celtic festival of Semhain
The current Halloween party has its origins in the Celtic festival of Semhain, which coincides with the Celtic New Year.
The Celts measured time according to the seasons and harvest cycles, so that Semhain was the festival marking the end of summer and at the same time the last harvest before the beginning of the cold season.
For the Celts the New Year did not begin on 1 January, but on 1 November.
Semhain, therefore, represented a moment of passage, out of time: at this moment the Celts believed that the wall dividing the kingdom of the dead from that of the living was thinning and that the two worlds could enter into communication.
For this reason the feast of Semhain was also a moment to honour the dead.
A bit like the Día de muertos for the Mexicans.
The Romans later made the feast of Semhain coincide with their feast day dedicated to Pamona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or to Parentalia, the feast of the dead, which took place in May, while later on the Christians instituted the feast of the dead on November 2nd, the day after All Saints’ Day.
What does the word Halloween mean
The meaning of the word Halloween (in Irish Hallow E’en), comes from the contracted form of All Hallows’ Eve, where Hallow is the Gaelic word meaning Saint.
The correct translation in Italian of Halloween, therefore, is “the night before (Eve) of All Saints”, i.e. of November 1st, All Saints, translated into English with All Hallows’ Day.
Moreover, the English word for digging is “to hollow” and the act of digging is “hollowing”, a sound that follows the very word of Halloween.
But how did the Halloween party get to the United States?
At the heart of it all are the migrations.
When many Irish people decided to emigrate to the new American lands, they brought with them many of their traditions, including the Celtic New Year’s Eve, Halloween.
In the United States, the festival then took hold, transforming itself and ending in rampant consumerism.
Meaning of the pumpkin and history of Jack-o’-lantern
One of the symbols of Halloween is the carved pumpkin.
You take a pumpkin, empty it of its contents, and carve a face on the surface then insert a candle into the carved pumpkin and place it as a home decoration on Halloween night.
But this tradition also has its roots in an ancient Irish legend: that of Jack-o’-lantern.
Jack was a drunken Irish blacksmith, who repeatedly managed to deceive the devil.
At the first meeting, Jack asks the devil to turn himself into a coin for one last drink, before handing over his soul forever.
But once the devil has turned, Jack extracts a cross and the devil, paralysed, can no longer return to himself.
In order to regain his freedom and not remain a coin forever, the devil promises Jack that he would not bother him for the next ten years.
But when the devil returns, ten years later, Jack manages to deceive him again.
This time he asks him to pick an apple from a tree, and once the devil has gone up, Jack places a cross at the base of the tree to prevent him from coming down.
The devil is then forced to come to terms with Jack again and promise him that he would spare him Hell.
Once dead, and having been a great sinner in life, Jack is refused entry into Paradise.
The devil, happy to make up for the many deceptions suffered by Jack, also refuses him Hell, so that since then Jack is forced to wander from dead into the world of the living.
The devil, as a last gift, gives Jack an eternal flame of Hell, impossible to extinguish, which Jack places inside a turnip.
Legend has it that on Halloween night Jack wanders in search of shelter and the inhabitants have to hang a turnip-lantern outside the house to show Jack that there is no place for him there.
Later, when the holiday passes to the United States, the turnip will become a pumpkin, because it is easier to find in those lands.
Trick or treat: the Halloween phrase
The tradition of “trick or treat” on Halloween also derives from the legend of Jack and partly also from that of Semhain. Among the spirits of the dead who roam the world of the living on Halloween night is the evil Jack, who goes around the houses reciting the terrible formula “trick or treat”, which literally means “sacrifice or curse”, much more threatening than the modern translation of “trick or treat”.
For this reason, legend has it that it was preferable to pay Jack his sacrifice and avoid making him angry, in order to prevent the house and its inhabitants from being cursed and subjected to misfortune and disease as a result.
Hence also the custom, which we have already talked about, to place pumpkins on the door on Halloween night to hunt Jack.
Why the scary masks?
The Celts believed that on the eve of each new year, on the 31st October, Samhain called all the spirits of the dead to himself and that the forces of the spirits could unite with the world of the living.
A night of temporary fusion of the laws of time and space, allowing the afterlife to merge with the world of the living and allowing wandering spirits to wander undisturbed on Earth.
It was, therefore, a celebration that exorcised the fear of death and spirits with the vitality of the celebrations for the end of the old year. During the night of the 31st October, gatherings were held for the ceremony of the lighting of the Sacred Fire and animal sacrifices were made. On this occasion, the Celts wore grotesque masks made of the skins of the killed animals to frighten the spirits.