Updated: Oct 10
October 5, 2021
In honor of my religious upbringing and the upcoming Halloween season, I thought I'd give you a little insight into how it all began.
October 31st marks the beginning of a three-day observance known as ALLHALLOWTIDE. Allhallowtide is the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed. The word "Allhallowtide" was first used in 1471, and is derived from two words: the Old English word halig, meaning holy, and the word tide, meaning time or season.
The first day of the Allhallowtide (most commonly known as Halloween, but also known as All Hallows' Eve, meaning "holy evening," or All Saints' Eve), is celebrated annually on October 31st, and is one of the world’s oldest holidays. Although it's derived from ancient festivals and religious rituals, Halloween is still widely celebrated today in a number of countries around the globe, including Ireland, Canada and the United States. The custom of "trick-or-treating" could be derived from an old English ritual of knocking on doors and asking for a "soul cake." In exchange, the recipients would offer prayers for the dead of the household.
The second day of ALLHALLOWTIDE (November 1st) is known as All Saints' Day, All Hallows, or Hallowmas. All Saints' Day is a holy day celebrated by Catholics and Anglican Christians to honor all the saints and martyrs, both known and unknown who were not necessarily canonized formally by the Church. It is a holy day of obligation which means believers should attend church services on that day.
November 2nd, the third and final day of Allhallowtide, is known as All Souls' Day (also referred to as the "Commemoration of All Faithful Departed"). All Souls' Day focuses on honoring all faithful Christians, including praying for the souls of the people who are in purgatory (a place or state in which the souls of believers who have died atone for their sins before being allowed to enter heaven). Unlike All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day is not a day of religious obligation, but some Christians still attend services. Many others celebrate by visiting family grave sites.
It is widely believed that many Halloween traditions originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival, SAMHAIN (pronounced sow-win), which celebrated the end of summer. The Celts, who lived as early as 2,000 years ago in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and northern France, honored the Sun God and the Lord of Death.
They referred to Samhain as the "season of death" because it marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year (approximately halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice). Traditionally, the Celtic festival began on October 31st and ended at sunset November 1st. Samhain, for whom the feast was named, was the Celtic lord of death, and his name literally meant "summer's end."
Since winter is the season of cold, darkness and death, the Celts soon made the connection to human death. The eve of Samhain was a time of Celtic pagan sacrifices, where Samhain allowed the souls of the dead to return to their earthly homes that evening. It was seen as a transitory time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could more easily be crossed. This meant the Aos Si (spirits or fairies) could more easily come into our world. The tradition of dressing up is believed to have been a way of imitating, and disguising oneself from the Aos Si, who some believed could take you back with them to their world. This would trick them into thinking you were a spirit or deceased being, so they would ignore you.
During the Middle Ages, the influence of Christianity changed the pagan ritual of Samhain. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV added All Saints' Day to the calendar as a festival to honor all known and unknown saints who had not previously received recognition. In 835, Pope Gregory moved the holiday from its original placement on May 13 to November 1, essentially replacing the Samhain festival with a Christian celebration.
After moving to the U.S., my family and I settled in the Detroit area. October 31st came as a complete bewilderment to us when the evening produced clusters of children dressed in costume, ringing our doorbell and yelling "trick-or-treat." The following year (after learning what this strange custom was all about), my mother accompanied my brother and I while we went door-to-door on Halloween night in an attempt to solicit candy from our neighbors. We didn't get very far because it was extremely cold and the sidewalks were slushy from a mixture of rain and snow earlier that day. (Michigan weather is very unpredictable!) We didn’t receive very much candy either, as we lived in a poor neighborhood and there weren’t many people passing out treats. Luckily, we moved out of Detroit before Devil's Night turned Halloween into a full-blown nightmare.
The exact origin of "Mischief Night" is unknown, but the phrase dates back to at least the early 20th century when pranksters rang doorbells, soaped windows, and stole buggies. In Vermont and New Hampshire, October 30th was known as "Cabbage Night," thanks to an old Scottish fortune-telling tradition. On that night, young girls would pull cabbages to examine them and try to divine who their husband would be. Of course, once the cabbages had told these young ladies all they could, the only thing left to do was to throw the cabbages against someone’s door and run away.
"Devil’s Night" is believed to have started in Detroit and then quickly spread to other cities along the Rust Belt of the US. With rising unemployment rates, foreclosures, and economic downturns, many buildings in the metro areas were abandoned and left unattended. These former homes became targets for vandals. The arson rates in Detroit numbered between 500 and 800 fires in a typical year.
In the 1970's-1980's arson cases in the three days and nights surrounding Halloween rose exponentially. In 1994, then-Mayor, Dennis Archer, created “Angels’ Night” with thousands of volunteers to patrol the streets, strict curfews, and bans on portable gas containers. In 1995, the number of fires declined to 158. These numbers began to decrease in the 1990s due to these government initiatives and an overall increase in community and police action.
Partly due to fewer houses and buildings to burn, a strong presence of police, volunteers, arson investigators, and ATF agents, this downward trend continued. In 2017, after Devil’s Night fires reached a record low, Mayor Mike Duggan ended Angels’ Night, so residents could focus on the positive festivities of Halloween. Point of Interest: A few years back, I google-earthed my once former residence in Detroit, and found nothing but an empty lot where my house once stood.