Monday, 10 October 2016

The Origins of Halloween, First Installment

In the lead-up to October 31st, I thought it might be fun to do a series of posts on the origins of Halloween and its evolving traditions.

Halloween’s origins date back two thousand years to the Celts, who lived in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. The Celts celebrated their new year on November 1, which marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter: a time of year that was 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. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain (pronounced sow-in), when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins.
After the Roman Empire conquered the majority of Celtic territory, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain. (The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees.)

The later influence of Christianity also affected the Celtic rituals. The Celtic festival of the dead was eventually replaced with a related, but 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. It was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas and the night before it--the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion--began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

The celebration of Halloween in North America reflected the influence of the different European ethnic groups who settled there. The first celebrations included “play parties,” public events held to celebrate the harvest, where neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing. Colonial Halloween festivities also featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds.

The American Halloween tradition of “trick-or-treating” probably dates back to the early All Souls’ Day parades in England. During the festivities, poor citizens would beg for food, and families would give them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the 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. This 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.


Stay tuned for the second installment in next week's post. 

The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, they would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts and prevent them from attempting to enter.

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