When I was a kid in the early 1960s, the autumn social calendar was highlighted by the Halloween party in our church. In these simpler day, the kids all bobbed for apples and paraded through a spooky "haunted house" in homemade costumes -- Daniel Boone replete with coonskin caps for the boys; tiaras and fairy princess wands for the girls. It was safe, secure and innocent.
The irony is that our church was a Congregational church -- founded by the Puritans of New England. The same people who brought you the Salem Witch Trials.
Rooted in pagan traditions more than 2000 years old, Halloween grew out of a Celtic Druid celebration that marked summer's end. Called Samhain (pronounced sow-in or sow-een), it combined the Celts' harvest and New Year festivals, held in late October and early November by people in what is now Ireland, Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. This ancient Druid rite was tied to the seasonal cycles of life and death -- as the last crops were harvested, the final apples picked and livestock brought in for winter stables or slaughter. Contrary to what some modern critics believe, Samhain was not the name of a malevolent Celtic deity but meant, "end of summer."
The Celts also saw Samhain as a fearful time, when the barrier between the worlds of living and dead broke, and spirits walked the earth, causing mischief. Going door to door, children collected wood for a sacred bonfire that provided light against the growing darkness, and villagers gathered to burn crops in honor of their agricultural gods. During this fiery festival, the Celts wore masks, often made of animal heads and skins, hoping to frighten off wandering spirits. As the celebration ended, families carried home embers from the communal fire to re-light their hearth fires.
Getting the picture? Costumes, "trick or treat" and Jack-o-lanterns all got started more than two thousand years ago at an Irish bonfire.
Christianity took a dim view of these "heathen" rites. Attempting to replace the Druid festival of the dead with a church-approved holiday, the seventh-century Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 as All Saints' Day to honor saints and martyrs. Then in 1000 AD, the church made November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to remember the departed and pray for their souls. Together, the three celebrations --All Saints' Eve, All Saints' Day, and All Souls Day-- were called Hallowmas, and the night before came to be called All-hallows Evening, eventually shortened to "Halloween."
And when millions of Irish and other Europeans emigrated to America, they carried along their traditions. The age-old practice of carrying home embers in a hollowed-out turnip still burns strong. In an Irish folk tale, a man named Stingy Jack once escaped the devil with one of these turnip lanterns. When the Irish came to America, Jack's turnip was exchanged for the more easily carved pumpkin and Stingy Jack's name lives on in "Jack-o-lantern."
Halloween, in other words, is deeply rooted in myths -- ancient stories that explain the seasons and the mysteries of life and death.
You can read more about ancient myths in the modern world in Don't Know Much About Mythology