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Harvesting Halloween's Roots

Oct. 31 a religious holiday? Try telling that to a sticky-fingered kid rummaging through a plastic pumpkin of Halloween loot.

Like many American holidays, Halloween has religious roots that have been treated with a thick veneer of commercialism.

And it's not just chocolate makers who benefit. Greeting cards, costumes, toys and decorations all are big sellers. A Toys 'R' Us representative reports it’s now the No. 2 holiday in terms of sales.

So where did Halloween come from?

Christians have long celebrated it as the eve of All Hallows, or All Saints' Day.

But before Christians adopted Nov. 1 as a saints' holiday, the Celts were celebrating it as their new year festival, Samhain. This holiday started the evening before, as do many Jewish holy days.

This new year coincided with the harvest and the time of the year when livestock were readied for the colder months.

The night marked not only the transition from the old year to the new, but also the narrow threshold that the Celts believed lay between the spirit world of the deceased and real world of the living.

This was the season when those who had died during the year migrated to the next world, the Celts believed.

But the souls of sinners might linger among the living – taking the form of animals. Gifts could make up for their sins and send them on their way to the spirit world. The Celtic people, therefore, made offerings of fruits and vegetables, and even animal sacrifices.

Another tradition involved bonfires. The old flames were allowed to flicker out and a new fire was lit. This way, the departed souls would be guided in their travels to the next world.

Pope Gregory III decided in the eighth century that the church's observance of All Saints' Day (recognizing saints) would be Nov. 1. The name Halloween comes from the evening before All Hallows or All Saints' Day.

The current practice of children venturing out in disguise stems from another Celtic custom. People masqueraded as the dead in a procession to steer the spirits away.

Sources: Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays; Religious Holidays and Calendars; The Folklore of World Holidays.

Written by Marjorie Backman;