Have you ever wondered about the history of Halloween? You may be surprised to find out that Halloween stems from ancient practices, beliefs, and traditions. Each year on October 31st people from all over celebrate Halloween. A favorite of children and those who like to tap into their "inner child", Halloween is a day to dress up in costume, hand out candy (usually to children), and try to frighten each other and ourselves with spooky stories. Like many holidays that are celebrated today, Halloween did not start off being celebrated in this manner - its origins have a history that started many centuries ago.
History Of Halloween And Its Pagan Roots
Over 2000 years ago, the ancient Celts, who lived in the area that is now Ireland, Great Britain, and Northern France, celebrated November 1st as their New Year. Since this time of the year was the beginning of winter and colder, darker days, it was more closely associated with death than any other time of the year. The Celts believed that it was at this time that the souls of the dead traveled into the other world. They also believed that during this time the dead were more likely to move among the living. To help the dead along their journey and keep the living from being affected by those of the dead who were evil, the Celts held a festival called Samhain. During this festival they would sacrifice animals, vegetables, and fruits to the dead, and light bonfires in honor of them. Also during the festival of Samhain, the Celts wore costumes of animal skins and heads, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.
When the Celts were conquered by the Roman Empire, the influence of Christianity began to permeate the Celtic rituals and beliefs. Christian missionaries and higher Roman Catholic officials declared the festival of Samhain to be evil, and sought ways to change the festival to become more Christian-oriented. The act of making pagan holidays Christian allowed for the easier conversion of those that practiced pagan practices or that adhered to pagan religions. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV proclaimed November 1st as “All Saints Day”, which was also known as “All Hallows” or “All Hallowmas”. From this came the name “Halloween”. In Christian traditions, the “Hallow” in “Halloween” comes to represented “saints” that are honored or revered as holy. The day, as an ancient Christian practice involved a feast celebrating all saints and martyrs; the celebration commonly occurred on November 1st and was first celebrated by Christians during the eighth century.
Christians adhering to All Souls’ Day practices commonly used soul cakes; these cakes were givien to those individuals that were poor so that the poor would, in turn, offer up prayers for the deceased. This tradition also stems back to ancient pagan practices where foods would be left out for the deceased to either satiate “hungry ghosts” or to appease and/or honor the deceased that would return on Samhain to visit their living relatives. In addition, poor people would practice the tradition of “souling” where they would go door-to-door in wealthy neighborhoods in order to get soul cakes, alms, and fruit. This was the origins of the modern day practice of "trick-or-treating" where children in costumes go from door to door to get Halloween candy.
When Protestantism become popular in England, the ringing of church bells on All Soul’s Day was banned and the holiday was not practiced in the Church. Nevertheless, well into the sixteenth century people continued to offer prayers for the deceased, sometimes holding to the traditions in open fields at night: fields alit by bonfires and torches.
No matter how hard the church tried many of the native Celts still celebrated in the way that they always had. The evening prior to “All Saints Day” or “All Souls Day” was still observed by many Celts by leaving gifts of food outside their doors to appease the spirits. Many people today do not realize that this is the tradition they are following when they give gifts of candy to the “ghosts and goblins” that come knocking on their doors on Halloween night. Of course, from the festival of Sanhaim comes the tradition of the Halloween party, where guests come dressed in their favorite Halloween costumes.
In the late nineteenth century, Samhain became identified as the Celtic New Year and today many pagans consider Samhain a day marking the New Year and a time for celebration. Samhain is a holiday that marks the ending of the season of light and the coming of darkness; the days will become increasingly shorter and the nights will be longer, until the longest night occurs on Yule in December. The day was celebrated with the lighting of bonfires, ritual cleansings, of readying for the winter, and of taking stock of grain and herd supplies. Any animals that were slaughtered during that time had their bones cast into the great bonfires. In Gaelic traditions, some individuals wore costumes as a way of appeasing evil spirits or as a method of confusing the spirits so that they could not be discovered by spirits with mal-intent. Turnips were carved out and turned into lanterns; this is where the modern day jack-o-lantern carving practices are derived. The light that came forth from the carved turnips was supposed to frighten off evil spirits and to keep them at bay.
The Roots of Halloween Fun
Trick-or-treating may also stem from ancient Irish practices surrounding the Saint Columb Kill Festival. At the time, peasants would go from house to house collecting cheese, apples, butter, eggs, and breadcakes in order to prepare for the festivities. Interestingly, the consumption of fruitcake, a practice now commonly associated with Christmas, was originally linked to Halloween traditions as well; during Halloween some people would eat barnbrack: inside the latter treat one would find a small treat that was meant for the purposes of divination.
Bobbing for Apples is also a custom that is linked to Halloween and ancient practices. When the Celts were conquered by the Romans, the latter peoples added their own religious significance to the Samhain holidays. During that time the peoples worshipped a form of the feminine divine known as the goddess Pomona: a goddess associated with the harvest. She was commonly depicted at a deity with a basket of flowers and fruits; it was believed that the apple was sacred to this goddess. So bobbing for apples became a practice as a result. Part of divinatory practices, if a female bobbed for an apple and then placed the retrieved apple under her pillow; it was believed that she would dream about her future love.
Halloween Colors were also significant to those that practiced Samhain or Halloween. Colors are used to signify the religious connotations or meanings associated with the holiday. The blacks, browns, and greens are associated with the earth. Black is also associated with death and decay, making it an ideal color to associate with a celebration that was performed to honor the dead. Orange is not only a color associated with Autumnal leaves, but it is a color representing endurance and strength as well.
Halloween Goes Mainstream
Halloween became widely practiced in the United States during the nineteen and twentieth centuries. Traditions included the carving of pumpkins into Jack-o’-lanterns, going door-to-door guising or trick-or-treating in costume. Many superstitions about the holiday continue to this day. Coming in a close second to Christmas in terms of recognition and spending, Halloween is a major commercial holiday in the United States today. People spend well-over 2.5 billion dollars every year on candy, costumes, and decorations for the holiday annually.
Other cultures celebrate similar holidays around the world. In Czechoslovakia, Halloween night is celebrated by placing chairs around the fireplace. There is one chair for each living family member, and one chair for the spirit of each deceased family member. In Mexico, Halloween is celebrated as “El Dia de los Muertos”, or “The Day of the Dead”. A festive and happy celebration, El Dia de los Muertos goes on for 3 days, and altars decorated with food, flowers, and photographs are constructed for deceased family members who are believed to return to earth on Halloween.