Robert Wolverton’s orange ceramic pumpkin, which welcomes visitors to his house during October, shows how much Halloween has evolved through the centuries. Those who today associate the holiday with its orange and black theme would carve turnips if they were sticklers for authenticity. Instead, the holiday has evolved to traditions of pumpkins, plastic Jack-o-Lanterns, candy, and trick-or-treaters.
Wolverton, a professor of classics in Mississippi State University’s department of foreign languages who specializes in mythology and Christianity, knows the roots of the late-fall celebration. He said the ancient Celts created traditions for the end of October, traditionally the end of the calendar year and a time when people thought they could communicate with spirits of those who had died.
The Celts used fire as a sign to spirits, especially those who had departed within the year, Wolverton said. “Many people believed these spirits could help or harm people still living, depending on the temperament of the spirits.”
However, Celts didn’t place candles in pumpkins as part of their rituals, since the cousin of the squash wasn’t readily available in England.
“They’d put candles inside hollowed turnips to encourage good spirits and discourage bad ones,” Wolverton said. “As well, fires were set in the hill tops to turn away possible evil spirits.”
On this All Hallows Eve, Halloween, children would often dress as souls of the departed.
An authority on etymology, the MSU professor points out that the word “demon” was a Greek word for souls of the dead and did not originally have a negative connotation. Rather, these souls were to look after the living, much as many people think of angels today, Wolverton said.
While often associated with pagan traditions, Christians began to turn these into Christ holy days, especially after 40 priests from Rome moved to England in 597 A.D. to “re-Christianize” the area. Later, in 834, the festival of All Saints began to honor saints on Nov. 1, followed by the feast of All Souls on Nov. 2. Since these two days were sacred days, most Christians attended services. Thus, All Saints Day was the day Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
“He did it on a day where he knew nearly all people would attend services,” Wolverton said.
Halloween was the eve of All Hallows, another word for saints. In earlier years, it had been the night before New Year, hence, New Year’s Eve,” Wolverton said.
But now back to Oct. 31.
In 1854, Halloween arrived in the United States and has become the third-most commercial holiday in the nation, and the largest secular holiday, in spite of its Christian roots.
Now people no longer limit costumes to black and white spirits. While ghosts, goblins and witches remain popular as costumes in the United States, Halloween also reprises a host of pop culture characters each year, from vampires to Richard Nixon to Lady Gaga.
“No matter how commercial Halloween grows,” Wolverton said, “All Saints Day and All Souls Day have their roots in paying tribute to our ancestors.”