At first glance Halloween is a trivial holiday during which children dress up and travel from doorstep to doorstep shouting “Trick or Treat” in an effort to solicit free candy. The roots of this holiday; however, are extremely interesting and are founded in tradition. Once the history of Halloween is understood a deeper meaning can be grasped and adults can partake in the enjoyment that is Halloween.
Samhain and the New Year
Halloween’s origin can be traced back over 2000 years to the Celts who celebrated the new year on November 1st. The new year represented a dramatic change in many aspects to the Celtic people. It is a transition between the warm and cold seasons and divides the period of productive harvest growth and the death of most crops. It is also at this time of year that the days are noticeably shorter and the nights longer.
It was believed that this time between the old and new year, specifically the night of October 31, marked a specific time when the boundaries between life and death overlapped and for one night the dead could walk amongst the living. This night was said to be the night of Samhain, literally meaning summer (sam) ending (fuin). Costumes were worn to disguise the living from the dead and large bonfires were ignited into which crops and animal sacrifices were placed as sacrifices to the Gods.
Celebrating the Samhain
Previous to the celebration people would extinguish their hearth fires. Once the celebration was concluded the hearth fires would be reignited using a flame from the bonfire. This was believed to offer protection from the coming winter. If a hearth fire lit from the bonfire went out tragedy was said to soon follow.
Within the home, a plate of food would be left out on the table or at the home doorstep so that deceased relatives could partake. This was also performed as a bribe to troublesome spirits in order to keep them from endeavoring in any mischief towards the household.
- This practice is observed today in the form of Trick-or-Treating where children dress up as ghosts and ghouls and travel from door to door shouting trick-or-treat. The idea being, that if the ghosts and ghouls are not sated then they will perform trickery upon the household, often by throwing eggs or toilet paper at the house.
Festivities included costumes consisting of animal heads and skins, singing, dancing, and divination (fortune telling). The Celts believed that since the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead were in conjunction it would be possible to decipher the future. Through the influence of the departed one was said to be able to predict anything from the crop yield for the upcoming year to the personality traits of ones future spouse.
The Romans Feralia, and Pomona
As the Romans conquered the Celts they began to incorporate their traditions into the Celtic society. On October 1st the Romans had traditionally observed Feralia, which was a time for remembering their dead. Due to the proximity of Feralia with Samhain and the similar nature of the two holidays they were merged into a single day of the dead.
A second Roman holiday that was merged with Samhain was Pomona. Ponoma was a mythical wood nymph and the goddess of fruit and trees. This merger is evident in the popular Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples, the apple being a symbol of Ponoma. It was believed that successfully pulling an apple with your teeth would bring visions of a person’s future spouse and the first to remove an apple would be the next to marry.
The Church and All Hallows Eve
When Christianity’s influence enters into the Celtic society (about 800AD) this holiday was once again revised. Pope Boniface IV decided to turn November 1 into All Saint’s Day (also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas) which was designed to honor saint’s and martyrs that had not been previously memorialized in some fashion. This made the preceding night All-hallows Eve, which was eventually shortened to Halloween.
- The Christian church also altered the practice of leaving food for the spirits of the deceased. Instead of offerings of food at the table or doorstep people began making soul cakes to give to the poor. The only price for a soul cake was a promise to pray for the souls of the families departed. This activity was called going-a-souling and was the precursor to trick-or-treating.
Strangely enough in about 1000 A.D. the church declared November 2 “All Souls’ Day” which was celebrated in an almost identical manner to Samhain. The only difference being, that instead of dressing in animal skins and heads this new celebration involved dressing as saints, angels, and demons. Even the bonfire was included. The combination of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day became known as Hallowmas.
Halloween in America
As immigrants entered America these customs came with them. Festivities involved parties during which singing, dancing, and stories of the deceased were related. A common theme for these parties was a celebration of the harvest. Many of the other Halloween traditions had been eliminated until the mid 1800’s A.D. when the tradition of dressing in costume re-emerged along with the now popular trick-or-treating in which participants roam from house to hose asking for food or money.
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