What's the story behind Halloween

The story of Halloween

The myth that the Halloween festival comes from the USA persists. Far from it: the customs developed from ancient Celtic, Catholic and Irish rituals - and creepy legends in Europe.

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The night of October 31st to November 1st has been a mystical night for centuries. It is true that today on Halloween children disguised as ghosts, witches or vampires collect sweets and pumpkins stand in the windows. But behind these harmless jokes are mysterious, centuries-old customs and gruesome legends.

Halloween by no means originated in the USA, as many believe. Celtic, Irish and Catholic rites have intermingled in the festival.

As early as the 1920s, the religious anthropologist Sir James Frazer referred to Halloween as the "old pagan festival of the dead with a thin Christian shell".

The memory of the dead in the church

In the Catholic Church, All Saints' Day on November 1st is the day on which the believers are supposed to commemorate the saints. November 2nd, All Souls Day, is dedicated to the memory of the deceased.

But even in pre-Christian times there were feasts in memory of the dead. The Celts celebrated Samhain: they believed that on this day the worlds of the dead and the living came together. The souls of the deceased returned to their previous homes and families: the Celts were convinced of this.

From this the Halloween festival developed in Catholic Ireland. It was first mentioned in the eighth century: the church tried to stop the pagan rites with gruesome and invented stories.

A Roman author described Halloween as a "terrible" night. The Celts allegedly drink the blood of children and engage in "repulsive sexual practices".

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Fire, feasts and fortune telling

The name Halloween is derived from "All Hallows Eve", the evening before "All Hallows Day", as All Saints' Day is called in English.

The Irish made large fires and feasts on Halloween - anything to appease the dead. Often, however, they are said to have disguised themselves in order not to be recognized by the dead souls. The night was so mystical that it was considered especially auspicious for fortune-telling.

The festival mingled with other traditions. The fact that the children go around on Halloween and demand "trick or treat" goes back to an old Christian custom.

It has been handed down since the ninth century that people walked from house to house on All Souls' Day. They asked for "soul cake", a kind of bread. In return for the donation, they promised to pray for the souls of the deceased family members.

When there was a terrible famine in Ireland in the 19th century, many people emigrated to the United States. They also kept their old customs in their new homeland - including Halloween.

Over time, the festival changed with new influences and became a cult in the United States and Canada. It was not until the 1990s that the wave swept back to Europe. The festival returned to where it was originally created.

The saga of Jack and the Devil

The fact that pumpkins are hollowed out and illuminated on Halloween goes back to an old Irish legend. According to legend, there was once a blacksmith named Jack. He was a cheat and a drunkard.

When the devil came to get him, Jack tricked him. He asked Satan to buy him one last drink. The Antichrist granted his wish, but he had no money.

So he turned into a coin to pay for the drink. But the blacksmith grabbed it. He put it in his wallet and kept the devil prisoner there because there was also a silver cross in it. Satan had to promise to leave Jack alone for a year to get free.

He returned twelve months later, and this time Jack asked him for one last apple from the tree. The devil picked the fruit, but Jack took a knife and carved a cross in the bark.

The Antichrist could no longer descend. Jack suggested another deal: he would help the devil get off the tree if he would leave him alone for eternity.

Jack'o'Lantern with a pumpkin instead of a turnip

When Jack died as an old man many years later, he was banned from entering heaven because of his pact with the devil.

But the devil didn't let him go to hell either: he was angry because he had been tricked and kept his promise. Jack had no choice but to wander forever through the eternal darkness.

So that he didn't get lost, the devil gave him a glowing coal. Jack put it in a hollowed out turnip and used it as a lantern. Since then, Jack'o'Lantern has been wandering through the darkness - as a restless and lost soul.

Irish immigrants in the United States found that their new home had many more pumpkins than beets. The old custom was continued in a new guise: instead of using a candle in a turnip to commemorate the lost souls, they used pumpkins from then on. They also cut into faces to frighten evil spirits - and the pumpkins are still called Jack'o‘Lanterns to this day.