American Holiday Celebrations for October
People of America
American Culture Training in Holiday Customs
The major federal, religious, traditional, and informal holidays celebrated in the United States.
* These holidays begin at sundown on the evening before the date given.
Yom Kippur (Oct.9)
Columbus Day observed (Oct.13)
1st Day of Sukkot (Oct.14)
Shemini Atzeret (Oct.21)
Yom Kippur (tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishri)*
Day of Atonement
This day marks the end of the Ten Days of Penitence that began with Rosh Hashanah. It is described in Leviticus as a "Sabbath of rest," and synagogue services begin the preceding sundown, resume the following morning, and continue to sundown.
Yom Kippur, is one of the most serious Jewish holidays. Jews who do not regularly observe other holidays often make an exception for Yom Kippur, which occurs on the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishri. Yom Kippur observances can vary. Some non-Orthodox Jews might not follow the following outline exactly.
This is judgment day. Many Jews practice repentance, say prayers, and give charity to obtain God's forgiveness for any sins made in the past year. Yom Kippur is the culmination of a process that began a month earlier, during the Hebrew month of Elal. It follows Rosh Hashanah and the New Year's activities.
Days of Awe
After Rosh Hashanah and before Yom Kippur are ten days known as the Days of Awe, or Ten Days of Repentance. They offer a chance for spiritual renewal and repentance before Yom Kippur, which is to atone for sins between man and God.
The Days of Awe, or Ten Days of Repentance, are the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It offers a chance for spiritual renewal and repentance before Yom Kippur, which is to atone for sins between man and God.
Some Orthodox Jews hold a live fowl over their heads as atonement for sin. The fowl is killed and given to the poor. Instead of an actual bird, some Jews use a bag of money symbolizing the price of the bird. This is the ancient custom of kapparot, or atonements, and is practiced during the afternoon before Yom Kippur begins.
Yom Kippur requires a fast of about 25 hours. The final meal before is a somewhat festive occasion, including soup, chicken, and challah, traditional Jewish bread. Salty foods, which may make fasting more difficult, are generally avoided. Participants are advised to drink plenty of water and to brush their teeth before the fast begins. Those who usually drink a lot of caffeine are advised to start cutting down days before to avoid the headache associated with caffeine withdrawal.
Candles and a blessing
Two holiday candles are blessed and then lit. This signals the beginning of Yom Kippur. There is no more eating or drinking. Other prohibitions are: no bathing, no using creams and oils, no wearing of leather shoes, and no sexual relations. There are exceptions. Children who have not yet had their bar or bat-mitzvah, pregnant women, and people who are sick or infirm may eat or drink as needed. Some Reform Jews might not follow these prohibitions precisely.
A series of prayers is said during Yom Kippur. The Kol Nidrei is the first prayer, and should be recited before sunset. It is written in Aramaic, an ancient language. The Maariv is an evening service and includes the viddui.
During Yom Kippur, there is no eating or drinking. Other prohibitions are: no bathing, no using creams and oils, no wearing of leather shoes, and no sexual relations.
Prayers for those who have died
In the morning, the Shaharit begins the day. It is similar to other morning services but includes additional poems, known as piyutim. Next is the Yizkor, a memorial prayer for those whose parents have died. Those with parents still living leave the main sanctuary while it is being said. The Musaf is the longest service of the year. It contains two parts: one which recounts the temple service, and the second describes the ten Jewish wise men tortured to death by the Romans.
Locking of the gates of heaven
Most synagogues take a break following the Musaf to allow worshippers to take a rest. In the afternoon, the Minhah, which includes the reading of the Book of Jonah, takes place. It is the briefest Yom Kippur service. It is followed by the Neilah, meaning "locked." It refers to the locking of the gates of heaven. The congregation stands during the Neilah. At the end of the afternoon service, the shofar, a ram's horn, is blown. Today various types of horns are used.
Families "break the fast," when they return home and eat a light meal often prepared in advance. This usually includes dairy products. Bagels and lox, noodle kugel, juice, and coffee are apt to be included.
Columbus Day (second Monday in October)
A federal holiday observed the second Monday in October, it commemorates Christopher Columbus's landing in the New World in 1492. Quite likely the first celebration of Columbus Day was that organized in 1792 by the Society of St. Tammany, or the Columbian Order, widely known as Tammany Hall.
The first celebration commemorating Christopher Columbus's landing in the New World takes place in New York City on the 300th anniversary of his arrival. It was organized by the Society of St. Tammany, or the Columbian Order, widely known as Tammany Hall.
Italian immigrants in New York (1866) and in San Francisco (1869) commemorate Columbus Day as a celebration of their ethnic heritage. The celebration of Columbus—an Italian who sailed under the Spanish flag--remained a celebration limited to the Italian community for many decades. Most Americans viewed their history as stemming from Britain, and did not identify with earlier explorations of the New World.
Historians, activists, and American Indians question Columbus's status as an icon in American history, rejecting the Eurocentric view that Columbus "discovered" America—the land had been populated by native peoples for millennia.
Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) (15th day of Tishri)*
This festival, also known as the Feast of the Ingathering, is both a harvest festival and a commemoration of the forty years of wandering after the Jews were freed from Egypt. The name refers to the small huts Jews live in during the festival, symbolic of the shelters used during their wandering. Some say that they also represent the huts used by workers during the annual fruit harvest.
Tabernacles, Feast of, one of the oldest and most joyous of Jewish holidays, called in the Bible the Feast of Ingathering and today often called by its Hebrew name, Sukkoth [Heb.,=booth]. The holiday begins on the 15th day of Tishri, the seventh month in the Jewish calendar, and lasts for eight days (seven days in Israel). The Feast of Tabernacles, which marked the closing of the harvest season for the Jews of ancient Palestine, is today celebrated by the taking of all meals in a lightly constructed booth roofed with thatch (a sukkah) to recall the shelters of the Jews when they wandered in the wilderness. The palm branch (lulav or lulab) and citron (etrog or ethrog) used in conjunction with prayers of the Feast of Tabernacles possibly go back to the harvest festival associated with the holiday. The day after Sukkoth is Simhath Torah [Heb.,=rejoicing of the law], which celebrates the annual completion of the reading of the Torah. Ex. 23.16; Lev. 23.33–44; Num. 29.12–40; Ezek. 45.25.
Shemini Atzeret (immediately after the seven days of Sukkot)*
Assembly of the Eighth Day
This joyous holiday, encompassing Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah), falls immediately after the seven days of Sukkot. It marks the end of the year's weekly readings of the Torah (Five Books of Moses) in the synagogue, and the beginning of the new cycle of reading.
Diwali (14th day of the dark half of the Hindu calendar month of Asvina)
Diwali, the Hindu "festival of lights," is the best known of Hindu festivals. Diwali generally lasts for five days, beginning on the 14th day of the dark half of the Hindu calendar month of Asvina. It is celebrated throughout India and its diaspora.
Diwali, the Hindu "festival of lights," is the best known of Hindu festivals and certainly the brightest. Amid the dark skies of autumn, lights illumine homes throughout India and its diaspora, while families celebrate with visits, gifts, and feasts.
Diwali generally lasts for five days, beginning on the 14th day of the dark half of the Hindu calendar month of Asvina. (Every Hindu month is divided into a light half, when the moon waxes, and a dark half, when it wanes.) By the Gregorian calendar, Diwali falls in October or November; in 2006, it begins on October 21.
Bright BeautyDiwali’s name comes from the Sanskrit deepavali, "row of lights." According to tradition, Diwali celebrates the joyous homecoming of Lord Rama, hero of the epic poem the Ramayana, after 14 years of exile. When Lord Rama and his wife Sita returned to rule their country, their people lit the way with small oil lamps called diye.
During Diwali, these lamps shine in rows along homes and temples—adorning windowsills, staircases, and parapets—or glow from little boats that float down rivers. Colorful candles are lit alongside diye, while fireworks light up the night sky.
Feasts and FestivitiesFresh flowers and freshly cleaned homes welcome the days of Diwali. Many families draw a colorful rangoli, a decorative pattern made in rice flour, at the entrance of the home. Friends, family, and neighbors visit to share feasts and festivities as well as little treats such as khil (rice puffs) and patashe (sugar disks). Puja, worship of deities, takes place at home and at temples with prayers and other offerings.
Diwali also marks the beginning of a new financial year. Households and businesses begin new accounting in new ledgers, which are often decorated with images of Lakshmi. The goddess of fortune, she is the main deity honored during Diwali.
Diverse TraditionsLike other aspects of Hinduism—the world’s oldest religion—the origins of Diwali are remote. The celebration probably has its roots in ancient harvest festivals. And like Hinduism, observance of Diwali is richly varied among the faith’s 800 million adherents.
Although the Rama tradition is widespread, in some parts of India Diwali honors the marriage of the goddess Lakshmi and the god Vishnu; in others it remembers the triumph of Lord Krishna over the demon Naraka. While for most Hindus the worship of Lakshmi is a focus of Diwali, Hindus in Bengal honor the fearsome goddess Kali. Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of wisdom, is also widely honored, as are other gods and goddesses.
Halloween (Oct. 31)
Eve of All Saints' Day, formerly called All Hallows and Hallowmass. Halloween is traditionally associated in some countries with customs such as bonfires, masquerading, and the telling of ghost stories. These are old Celtic practices marking the beginning of winter.
Halloween is known and loved today as a time to wear costumes, go door to door asking for candy, and watch monster movies. But the holiday's origins go back centuries to the enactment of All Saints' Day, a Christian holiday. Along the way, it has also picked up traditions from Samhain, a Celtic festival celebrating the start of winter.
All Saints' Day
The name "Halloween" began as "All Hallows Eve." This became "All Hallow E'en," leading to "Hallowe'en," or Halloween. It was the evening before All Hallows Day, which was later called All Saints' Day. (In this case, "hallows" meant "saints.")
All Saints' Day, a feast for all martyrs and saints, was celebrated on November 1st for the first time during the 8th century, but customs varied regarding its observance. This date was officially established for all Catholic churches in 837 by Pope Gregory IV.
Starting in the 10th century, this feast was the eve of All Souls' Day, which soon came to overshadow it.
All Souls' Day
Taking place on November 2, All Souls' Day was a day of prayer for the dead. It was believed that the prayers of those still living could comfort dead souls, or elevate them from Purgatory. The observances began the previous evening with prayers and the ringing of church bells.
When England moved from Catholicism to Protestantism, the All Souls' Day bell-ringing was prohibited and no official services were conducted. Individuals and groups continued to find ways of observing the day, perhaps out of a feeling of obligation to their dead loved ones; reports dating to the 16th century refer to people praying in the fields by the light of torches or bonfires.
Another observance involved "soul cakes." These (and alms) were given to the poor, in return for which the poor would offer a prayer for the dead. The poor and their children in some areas would go "souling," going to the homes of the wealthy and asking for soul cakes, fruit, and alms, a practice mentioned by Shakespeare in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. ("You have learned... to speak puling [whiningly], like a beggar at Hallowmas.")
November 1st also marks an ancient Celtic festival named Samhain (pronounced sah-win), or "summer's end." While little is known for certain about its original observances, it appears to have been a pagan calendar feast on the opposite side of the year from Beltane. (Some otherwise reputable sources claim that Samhain is the name for a Celtic god of the dead. This is unquestionably false.)
There has been much speculation about the relationship between the Halloween–All Saints–All Souls holidays and Samhain. Some believe that the Christian observances were deliberately moved to November in order to take over the pagan holiday. There is, however, no evidence for this. Others suggest that the pagan celebration may have gained its associations with the dead from the Christian holidays, but this is also speculation at best.
Midway Through Autumn
A more likely explanation may be that the turn of autumn—with the harvest finished, the days getting colder, the nights getting longer, and everybody getting ready to face the winter—naturally leads to thoughts of death and the unknowable. Much as many different cultures mark the start of spring with light-hearted holidays and celebrations of fertility and renewal, autumn may attract holidays in which people focus on the other side of the life cycle.
On the other hand, it hardly matters whether the Christian and pagan holidays were originally related to one another; the two have been intermingled in the popular imagination for a long time.
Coming to America
The modern observances of Halloween are more recent than one might expect. The holiday had a rebirth in North America between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, probably through an influx of Irish immigrants. They brought with them traditions that combined features of the Celtic and Christian holidays, and celebrated with feasting, divinations, and mischief making.
Jack-o'-lanterns and trick-or-treating in costume both became Halloween fixtures in North America, and have since been exported back to Europe.
There has been a backlash against Halloween by several groups in recent years. Some Christians object to its allegedly pagan origins, or to what they see as its celebration of witches and other "evil powers." Some neo-pagans object to the alleged Christian takeover of their holiday, or to what they see as a distorted, negative view of witches and magic. And some simply don't think it's safe for children to go out after dark taking candy from strangers. (The last of those groups often proposes safer celebrations.)
Still, as long as there are cold autumn nights, a steady supply of candy corn, and radio stations to play "The Monster Mash," there seems no danger of Halloween going away.
While rooted in the past (see Halloween History), Halloween as we know it today dates back to the early 20th century.
The holiday was relatively obscure in late 19th century America. It was brought to the country by Irish and Scottish immigrants, combining the features of the Celtic and Christian holidays, and celebrated with feasting, divinations, and mischief making.
People had been carving gourds or pumpkins and using them as lanterns long before this practice was associated with Halloween. In 1850, for example, poet John Greenleaf Whittier mentioned the practice of his boyhood in "The Pumpkin": "When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin, / Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!"
We don't know exactly when and why these lanterns became associated with Halloween in particular, though we do know it was in North America. But by the start of the 20th century, the connection was firmly established.
The name "Jack-o'-lantern" has changed in meaning several times. It was first recorded as a nickname for a night watchman, dating back to 1663. Around the same time, it was used as another name for a will-o'-the-wisp. It began to be used for pumpkin lanterns sometime in the 19th century. It's possible that the name simply went from the night watchman (a man holding a lantern) to the lantern itself.
On the other hand, an Irish legend tells of a miserly man named Jack who, while alive, tricked the Devil into agreeing not to take him into Hell. Upon his death, St. Peter wouldn't let Jack into Heaven, because he had been too stingy and sinful. The Devil wouldn't let him into Hell because of the deal they'd made. Jack was condemned to wander between Heaven and Hell with his lantern, looking for a place to rest and never finding one.
In late 18th century America, Halloween was a night for mischief and pranks. Boys would make "tick-tacks," cutting notches in the ends of a wooden spool and winding string around it. The spool would be placed right up against a window, with a nail serving as an axle. When the string was pulled, it made a loud and rapid "tick-tack" noise. Other noisy and startling practices involved throwing corn and decaying vegetables at houses.
While this was considered innocent fun, some pranksters began to go too far, especially with the move from country life to city life. News stories tell of students being expelled from schools, gangs of youths roaming through town covering people in flour, buildings being blown up, and so on.
Trick or Treat!
The general practice of going door-to-door for treats is clearly similar to a much older practice, "souling," in which the poor would go from house to house begging for alms or food. However, the specific practice of "trick-or-treating" dates to around the 1930s. It is possible—though by no means certain—that it evolved as an antidote for the increasingly rowdy and costly Halloween pranks. It provided a healthier activity for the young and gave them an incentive not to play tricks.
We could easily make something up about the origins of Halloween costumes. We could say that people originally dressed as ghosts and witches to scare people, and that the practice eventually spread to include costumes of all sorts. But the fact is that we don't actually know where Halloween costumes came from, only that the practice, like trick-or-treating, appears to have begun in early 20th century America.