Halloween‘s origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).
The Celtic New Year is celebrated on November 1st. It marks the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that is often associated with human death.
Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. Holding a celebration on Samhain allowed unhappy and unruly ghosts to create havoc and then settle peacefully back into the earth so winter could come and crops would not fail.
On Samhain, Druids built huge bonfires, where people gathered to burn dead crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.
During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.
In 1000 A.D., the Church turned November 2 into All Souls’ Day, a day to honor the dead. It is widely believed today that the church was attempting to incorporate the Celtic festival of the dead with a church-sanctioned holiday.
All Souls Day was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day). The night before it, Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
Decorating “jack-o’-lanterns” originated in Ireland and the name comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. The story goes that the devil sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.” Immigrants brought the tradition to America, where pumpkins were used instead of turnips and it became an integral part of Halloween festivities.
The American tradition of “trick-or-treating” dates back to early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During festivities, poor citizens would beg for food and richer families would give pastries called “soul cakes” in return for a promise to pray for the wealthier family’s dead relatives.
The distribution of soul cakes was encouraged by the church as a way to replace the ancient practice of leaving food and wine for roaming spirits. The practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food and money. It is believed that this is the first time the celebration turned into a community event.
Please have a safe one, and Happy Halloween!
Photo credit: Linda (Pane, amore e creatività)