What is the origin and meaning of Halloween? Why is it celebrated on October 31?

(CNN Spanish) — Every October 31, the streets of the neighborhoods are filled with witches, superheroes and heroines, terrifying clowns, vampires, ghosts, monsters or any costume that the imagination allows. Halloween or “witch night” is a popular celebration in the United States but its impact has been such that many cultures beyond the Anglo-Saxon world have adopted it. How do we get to the costumes and going from house to house threatening to do a “trick” if we don’t get “candy”?

The word Halloween is a shortened version of the phrase All Hallows’ Eve or All Hallows’ Evening (“The night of all saints”, in Spanish).

On the first day of November, families around the world, from France to Mexico, celebrate All Saints’ Day, a Christian festival typically marked with family gatherings and silent prayers to honor all saints.

In medieval England, the festival was known as All Hallows and took place on November 1. The eve is known as All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween, which is why it is celebrated every October 31. The day after All Saints’ Day is All Souls’ Day on November 2. These days were designated as a celebration of the saints and a time to pray for dead souls.

But when and where did it all start? The origin of Halloween dates back to the Celts and to a pagan festival. Here we tell you:

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The Celts, a pagan festival and the arrival of the dead

The origin of Halloween dates back to an ancient pagan festival celebrated by the Celts 2,000 years ago called Samhain. The festival, which took place in the UK, Ireland and north-west France, was celebrated on November 1 to commemorate the start of winter and the end of the harvest. The Celts believed that Samhain was a time when the souls of the dead returned to the world of the living to visit their homes.

“What we would call November, or the first part of it, seems to have been the appointed time for the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter among peoples who spoke or speak Celtic languages, chiefly represented today by the Irish,” Explain to CNN Joseph Nagy, a professor at Department of Celtic Languages ​​and Literature at Harvard University.

While it is not clear exactly how the ancient Celts celebrated Samhain, due to the lack of written records, it is said that bonfires were lit on the tops of hills during the festival to ward off evil spirits, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The tradition of wearing costumes began here, when villagers wore masks to avoid being recognized by ghosts that were believed to be present.

The trick-or-treating tradition began in areas of the United Kingdom and Ireland. People went from house to house “souling”—asking for small loaves called “soul cakes”—in exchange for a prayer.

Adults also went from door to door asking for food and drink in exchange for a song or dance.

Jack-o’-lanterns (the traditional carved pumpkins used as lanterns) are the symbol of Halloween. People in Ireland and Scotland originally used beets or turnips as lanterns on Halloween.

An Irish legend says that Jack-o’-lanterns are named after a man named Jack who could not go to heaven or hell and was forced to walk the earth forever with only a coal from hell to light his lantern. .

The name Jack-o’-lantern may also be derived from the night watchman who turned on the street lanterns every night.

Immigrants from Ireland and Scotland brought Halloween to the United States in the 19th century. Haitian and African immigrants brought voodoo beliefs about black cats, fire, and witchcraft.

From Samhain to Halloween in the United States

Halloween decorations are seen in a garden at sunset in Washington DC on October 20, 2018. (Credit: ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images)

If there is a country that celebrates Halloween in a big way, it is the United States. Also called “Halloween”, the holiday came to the United States with the Irish immigrants who settled (with all their costumes) from the mid-nineteenth century. By the 20th century, Halloween had become one of the main festivities, especially popular among the little ones.

“It was when the Irish immigrants came that the celebrations really took root in America and they had the practice of going door to door, begging for fruits and nuts and things like that,” Nagy said.

Then, over time, he added, Halloween became more commercialized and became the celebration of candy that it is today, not only in the United States but also in other countries.

Now it is customary to wear a variety of costumes: from witches and vampires to superheroes and terrifying clowns. The only limit to dressing up for Halloween is your imagination. Once disguised, you go out to the streets of your neighborhood to ask for the famous “trick or treat” and thus accumulate as many sweets as possible in your pumpkin. Something very striking in the United States is the gloomy decoration of houses and buildings: carved pumpkins, fake cobwebs, tombs, witches or skeletons, paper bats, orange neon lights and inflatable dolls are part of the scenery.

Families also often share scary stories around a campfire or snuggle up to watch scary movies.

With information from CNN’s Jacqueline Howard

What is the origin and meaning of Halloween? Why is it celebrated on October 31?