Why do we dress in costumes on Halloween? Why do we don mask and sheets to make us look skeletons and ghosts?
Halloween – Hallowe’en – All Hallow’s Eve – Evening before All Saints’ Day.
Halloween, like many of our celebrations, has much of its roots in Celtic and pagan tradition. During Samhain (or “Summer’s End”), the ancient Celts marked the transitions between light and dark, old and new, life and death. They believed that the “veil” between this world and the other world – the “real” world and the “spirit” world – is thin or even lifted, allowing for souls and spirits to pass from one side to the other. If you don’t want the spirits to take you across the veil to the other side, you may want to find a way to disguise yourself. What do you do? You put on a costume and a mask. This hides you from the spirits and you are safe. To further protect yourself, place a bowl of food on the doorstep to feed the ghosts and keep them from coming in the house. Sound like giving “treats” to avoid “tricks”?
When the Catholic Church appropriated the Samhain ideas, as it did so many ancient traditions, the holiday morphed into Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, the night before the commemoration of the all the saints, appropriately called “All Saints’ Day”. At this point, costumes shifted to angels and saints, to honor them, and devils to hold them at bay. The offering of food was to feed the poor who came begging at the door, a sort of real life version of feeding hungry ghosts.
As you plan your Halloween costumes and parties this year, forget the slasher costumes and politician masks. Stick to ghosts and skeletons, even zombies. Stay true to the origins of the holiday – the blurring of the lines between this world and the next. Also, spend a few moments to honor your ancestors and loved ones who have passed over, in preparation for All Souls’ Day on November 2. (Note: the Mexican counterpart of this holiday is the Day of the Dead, which has its own unique traditions. I leave a full discussion of the Day of the Dead to another writer who is more familiar with that culture.)
Happy Halloween to all!