Halloween, a History

Candy, costumes, cool weather, and a spooky atmosphere, Halloween has it all! As a child, it was always my favorite day of the year. Now that I have a son, I get to jump in and be a kid again. We spend months preparing for Halloween. We love building our costumes and decorating the house, all the while playing our favorite spooky movies. It is a blast, but why do we do it? Where did this strange and unusual holiday come from?

Thank the Celts for the costumes and the candy

Samhain, pronounced “sow-win”, is the origin of Halloween. Samhain, celebrated on October 31st, is the beginning of the Celtic new year. Samhain is one of four seasonal Celtic festivals celebrated during the year. It marks the end of the harvest and the beginning of the long dark winter. Samhain actually means “the end of summer”.

Celtic New Year

On Samhain the Celts would extinguish all of the fires in their homes. After the harvest was complete one central bonfire would be lit by the Druids. At the end of the festival each household would light a torch from the communal fire and relight their own hearth fires. This signified cleansing any garbage out from the old year and starting fresh with the new year. Another reason large bonfires were lit was to keep mischievous spirits away.   It was believed that on October 31st the boundary between the human and spirit worlds became very thin. This brought two types of visitors into the human realm. The aos sí and ancestral spirits. The aos sí are what we think of today as the fae and nature spirits. The aos sí could be very mischievous. People wore costumes for a couple of reasons during this festival. One was to impersonate the aos sí. They would accept food offerings and gifts on their behalf. The other was to fool the aos sí. If they knew you were a human, they might just kidnap you! Even though people dressed up in costume to fool the spirits to protect themselves, they still worried about their homes. Bowls of food were left outside the home as an offering to appease the spirits from going inside and causing hayhem. This is the tradition that evolved into trick or treating.   Of course people dressing up as mischievous spirits led to some mischief during this festival. It is recorded that a lot of feasting, drinking, and general tomfoolery happened during these festivities. It’s nice to see after all this time, things don’t really ever change.

Oh so very old

Here is a wonderful website that covers the neolithic passage tombs in Ireland.  If you are ever over there, you MUST visit one of them. They are truly awe inspiring!

We have written accounts dating back to the early 10th century that prove Samhain was celebrated in the 5th century. This date was very important to people WAY before then, however. There are neolithic passage tombs in Ireland that were constructed to illuminate on Samhain by letting the sun in. These neolithic passage tombs were built anywhere from 4000–2500 B.C. So ya, this date has been important to man for milenia. The Mound of the Hostages is one example of these sites.

Thank the Romans for the ghosts and the apples

The Romans turned their attention to Britain around 43 A.D. They were very prolific conquerors. One of the common tactics Rome used to keep a conquered population appeased was to merge their religion and traditions with that of the locals. Conquered people were much more amenable if they could still observe the things that are sacred to them, after all. The Romans had two different festivals that merged with Samhain.   The first Roman festival was Feralia. This was a day in late October the Romans commemorated the passing of their dead. Under the Celts Samhain was a harvest festival of fire and sacrifice. The addition of Feralia brought on the ghosts. This was an easy merger because the Celts too believed the spirit world was close and active in the mortal realm on this night.   The second festival the Romans added to Samhain was Pomona. Pomona is the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Her symbol is the apple. Candied apples and bobbing for apples at Halloween parties both came from this Roman festival. Essentially, the act of bobbing for apples was a form of divination. On October 31st, with the veil between realms so thin it was a good time for a little divination after all. The apple has a fascinating history you can check out here.

Thank the Christians for the name

In 590 AD Pope Gregory I became the leader of the Catholic church. The Roman Empire had long been officially Christian by this point. In 596 Pope Gregory started the Gregorian Mission to convert the pagans on the British Isles to Catholicism. One of the biggest challenges the monks faced in converting the Celts was ending the pagan festivals that had been celebrated in the lands for centuries. To help them the Catholics took an old page out of the old Roman playbook. Synchronicity. Originally, All Saints Day was celebrated on May 13th. Introduced by Pope Boniface IV it was a day to honor dead saints and martyrs. Around 835 A.D., however, Pope Gregory IV was still trying to eradicate that pesky pagan Samhain festival. Things took a little longer to happen back in the day. For some reason the people didn’t want to give up the festivals they had been celebrating for a millenia. . . Who could have guessed? In an effort to merge Samhain with a Catholic festival he moved All Saints Day to Nov 1st. In Old English, All Saints day was known as All Hallows, or All Hallowmas. As Samhain was celebrated on October 31st, the eve of All Hallows, it became known as All Hallows Eve. Centuries later this evolved into the word Halloween.

Thank the Irish for bringing it to America.

Before the early 19th century Halloween was not really observed in America. This had a little something to do with our strict Puritan heritage. Those folks were not in a hurry to celebrate anything Pagan, or worse, Catholic. Halloween today, however, is big business. It took getting some immigrants over here that were down to celebrate old pagan/ catholic festivals to really get Halloween going in America. It wasn’t until 1845 when the Irish began coming to America in droves to flee the potato famine that Halloween finally became popular in American culture.

Thank us all for keeping it alive today.

It’s crazy to think about the evolution this festival has gone through. From ceremonies observed in the Neolithic period, to the Celts, to the Romans, to the Christians, over to America, this day has remained special to mankind for over a millenia. In America, Halloween has evolved into a community holiday. It is a time to gather with friends and family to revel and feast. Many still observe October 31st as a day to remember and honor those that have passed on. Anyway you look at it, Samhain was a time to band together as a community to help support each other. Back in the Celtic days supporting each other through the long dark winter meant survival. In the times we’re living in now. . . it’s still the same. October 31st is a perfect day to celebrate coming together for survival. . .while being socially distant and following the advice scientists and health officials are giving us. At least on this day wearing a mask can finally not be a political issue.   I’ll get off the soap box. Halloween has always been a magical time for me and mine. Memories that last a lifetime are created on this day. We’re having to be creative to find new ways of celebrating this year. No matter what, we’re going to make it a memorable one! I encourage everyone to do the same. FYI, it will be a great night to go howl at the moon!