4 Fascinating Facts About the Ancient Origins of Halloween
Need a conversation starter at your office Halloween party? Here are four facts about the origins of Halloween that are guaranteed to keep the chatter lively and make you look pretty knowledgeable to boot:
1. It All Began With the Celts
Over 2,000 years ago, on November 1 of each year, the Celts celebrated the coming of their new year with a festival called Samhain (pronounced SOW-in or SAH-win). Across what we now know as Ireland, England and northern France, the Celts commemorated the end of summer, the conclusion of the harvest and the advent of winter by building massive bonfires on October 31. This was the night that ghosts were said to return to earth to visit their former homes, make trouble, damage crops and generally cause a bit of havoc. To ward off spirits and fairies, and to honor their dead, the Celts sacrificed animals and crops on the huge bonfires, wearing costumes of hides and hollowed-out animal heads. The Celts held feasts, setting a place at the table for the souls of their deceased ancestors. Celtic priests, known as Druids, were said to be especially adept at making predictions about the future on the night of October 31, a valuable skill in an uncertain world.
2. The Costumes Weren‘t for Fun
We dress in costume today on Halloween because it’s a hoot. Who doesn’t want to be Walter White or Austin Powers for an evening? Centuries ago, however, wearing a costume on Halloween was a form of self defense. Halloween was the one night of the year that ghosts were said to roam the earth. Fearing that they would happen upon a specter and meet a frightening end, European and Celtic people began to wear masks on Halloween whenever they left their homes. This, they believed, would fool ghosts into believing the masked townsfolk were simple spirits having a nice Halloween ramble rather than potential targets of otherworldly mayhem.
3. How a Pope Paved the Way for Halloween
The next time some humorless, pinch-faced blowhard waggles a finger at you and decries Halloween as being somehow sinful and satanic, pull this factoid out of your hat and wave it around: A pope is directly responsible for Halloween! Yes, the Catholic Church kind of pope. Yes, really.
How did that happen? Many historians believe that the roots of Halloween are not pagan at all, but rather are Christian. The Roman Empire swept over Europe and conquered most Celtic lands by about 43 A.D. During the next four centuries of Roman rule in this area, two Roman festivals — Feralia and Pomona — were blended together with the Celtic harvest festival Samhain. Feralia was the Roman holiday held in October for remembering the dead, while Pomona was a festival honoring the goddess of fruit and trees.
Later, Pope Boniface IV created the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day in 609 A.D. About a hundred years after that, Pope Gregory III moved the celebration from May to November 1 and turned it into All Saints’ Day, a holiday to honor both saints and martyrs. November 2 became All Souls’ Day, a Holy Day of Obligation, which the church celebrated almost exactly like the Celtic Samhain festival, with bonfires, costumes and parades. With the church’s blessing, celebrants dressed up as saints, devils and angels. Historians believe the Catholic Church created this holiday to gradually replace the pagan Celtic festival with something church-approved.
All Saints’ Day was also known as All Hallows (from the Middle English “Alholowmess”). The night before, October 31, came to be known as All Hallows Eve, which was truncated to “Hallowe’en”¯ over the ages. We’d never have gotten to the present-day Halloween had Pope Gregory III not created All Saints’ Day and moved it to November.
4. The Original Jack-O‘-Lantern Was… a Turnip?
Have you ever stopped to wonder why we carve pumpkins with scary faces on Halloween? We do it because of an Irish myth about a fellow called Stingy Jack. Because Jack fooled the Devil and kept him from claiming his soul, when he died the Devil refused to let Jack enter hell.
Jack was no candidate for heaven either, so he was stuck wandering the world for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack a burning coal to light his way through the night as he traveled. Some accounts say the Devil threw the coal at Jack. However it happened, Jack kept his coal glowing by carving out a turnip to carry it in. He became known in folklore as “Jack of the Lantern.” Eventually, he became simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
Fearful folk from Ireland and Scotland carved their own lanterns from turnips and potatoes to keep Jack and other spirits away from their doors. In England, they often used large beets. When immigrants from these countries arrived in the U.S., they decided pumpkins worked wonderfully for this purpose. A new tradition for a new land was born.
Enjoy your Halloween! Keep it safe and keep it fun!