Halloween will be here soon. An exciting time for children as they wait in breathless anticipation of the biggest sugar rush of the year. An exciting time for many adults as well, as they celebrate the holiday with friends and family. There are corn mazes to get lost in, haunted hayrides and houses to scream in, and plenty of horror movies to watch all month long. But, let’s look at where all this started shall we?
Approximately 2,000 years ago, in what is now Scotland, Ireland, and France, the Celts had a different, pagan holiday known as Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”). Smahain was a celebration on the night before the new year as summer ended and the winter began. It was on this night that the Celts believed the worlds of the living and dead blurred allowing the dead to crossover for a time. It was also a magical time where faeries were believed to roam the lands, and where, if you could read the signs, you could tell the future.
The Druids (Celtic Priests) would light a sacred bonfire for the celebration and people would attend in costumes made of animal heads and furs so that the spirits wouldn’t recognize them. It was a grand old time (really old) with the entire community gathered together trying to tell the future whilst dining upon the members of their herds that had been culled for the coming winter. At the end of their celebration, using carved turnips, they would take live embers from the sacred bonfire home to light their hearth with. This last little tidbit later evolved into the tradition of Jack-O-Lanterns with a little help from the Irish myth of “Stingy Jack.” (Well save that story for next year).
As happens with all things, the Samhain changed.
In 43 A.D. the Romans had already conquered most of the Celtic lands and, as conquerors will often do, they brought their own holidays for that time of year. In this case, there were two celebrations near the end of October that the Romans incorporated into Samhain. First was Feralia which honored the passing of the dead. Second was the honoring of Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona is the most probable root of today’s Halloween tradition of bobbing for apples. “How?” you ask. Her symbol was the apple and, as the holidays were merged, the Celts would play a game where those of marrying age would try to bite into an apple either in water or hanging from a string. The first one to bite into the apple would be the next to get married.
Skipping forward a few centuries we take a short stop off in the late 9th century. It is here that we introduce another, although slightly different, conqueror: Christians. Pope Gregory IV, in an effort to counter pagan influences with Christian ones, moved All Saints Day from May 13th to November 1st. All Saints Day was also called All Hallows thus the night before All Hallows became All Hallows Eve which eventually became, you guessed it, Halloween. As is common with the attempts of the Church to replace pagan holidays with Christian ones (Easter and Christmas for example) we ended up with a blended Pagan-Christian holiday with a variety of symbols and traditions from both sides interspersed throughout.
Jumping ahead a little over a 1,000 years, we’re now comfortably back in the present with our color TV’s and microwave popcorn. Halloween today is still celebrated in many countries but, Halloween still has a somewhat dichotomous nature. In some cultures, Halloween is celebrated more on the Christian side of things honoring the dead, the Saints, and the Martyrs. In other cultures, like the United States for example, it’s celebrated more as a secular holiday, or less tied to religion. Halloween is aimed more at the children and costume parties than it is honoring the dead.
There are many more pagan traditions with this holiday, and I’ve already gone on too long but, at least now you know where some of the traditions of this particular holiday arose from. With that being said, go out there and have a Happy Halloween no matter how you celebrate it.