History of Halloween- Most of us view Halloween as little more than a yearly event geared primarily for children. It is a day when children dress up in costumes, go “trick-or-treating,” and carve Jack-o-lanterns. Adults take part in the fun with costume parties. While it retains some of the spooky qualities traditionally associated with the day. The real scare of Halloween fades through commercialization. And its history and origins become lost and irrelevant. Leaving Halloween cut off from any of its original meaning.
While some Christian groups put out the warnings about the “Satanic” meaning of Halloween, the day, absent its ancient spiritual content in the public consciousness, is nothing more that another holiday.
Halloween’s Ancient Origins
The ancient origins and meanings of Halloween formed in the belief and spiritual practice that precede Christianity by centuries. Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, is traditionally celebrated on October 31. It precedes All Saints Day on November 1 which is one of the main Holy days of the Christian tradition. Now largely lost to us is the fact that these days, so holy to the Christians, coincide with the ancient Celtic holy days of Samhain.
Samhain (pronounced “sow-in”) revered by the Celts of ancient England and Ireland and marking the beginning of the new year. Samhain marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark half of the year. It was also the time in which the realm of the Gods became evident to the mortal world. Because this period lead to a liminal time in which the boundary between this world and the world of the divine had become blurred, many believed the spirits of the dead were free to roam among the living.
Roman Empire Expansion & Halloween
Many ancient sites in England and Ireland that were important to the Celts, tombs and sacred caves for example, are aligned with the sunrise on Samhain. This offers evidence of the reverence for the dead at this time of year. There are references to Samhain and its sacred status in some of the surviving Irish literature that retains details of pre-Christian belief.
As England, Ireland, and Scotland became subject to the Holy Roman Empire, the original meaning of Samhain evolved to correspond with Christian belief. One of the standard procedures of the earliest Christian missionaries was to allow an admixture of the pagan religious systems to permeate Christian doctrine. This made it easier to win over the pagan Celts and bring them into line with Christianity. As a result, the Christian holy days of All Hallows Eve and All Saints day made for an ideal substitution for the pagan Samhain. However, features such as the belief that the dead walk among the living, a veneration of nature as it is conceived as being imbued with the magic of the pagan realm of the Gods persisted even as the Christians attempted to stamp out these ideas.
The “Thinning of the Veil”
The most important feature of Samhain was the permeability between the realms of the Gods and the dead with the world of the living. The pre-Christian Celts believed it necessary to make offerings to both the Gods and the souls of the dead. People held feasts and offerings from the harvest that included familiar “treats” associated with Halloween to this day. Apples and nuts were offerings, along with more hardy fare from the previous season’s harvest. People celebrated Samhain by dressing in disguises and going door to door bringing and offering treats. Part of the custom was to recite or sing verses for the hosts who would reward the people in costumes a treat, usually small things like the apples and nuts prepared for offering during the time of Samhain.
Since people dressed in disguises and costumes meant to resemble the spirits of the dead, it was not much of a leap to playing pranks while in costume. Thus, the tradition of playing tricks on people grew along with the celebrations that marked Samhain. I addition to imitating the dead in order to placate them, early Celts carved faces in turnips meant to both venerate the dead and ward of the evil spirits that came with the crossing from the realm of the dead. These are the origins of the Jack-o-Lantern.
Halloween Absorbed Into Christian World
The substance of Samhain, those features of pre-Christian religion that conflicted with Christian doctrine, were eventually stamped out by the dominance of Christianity in Britain and Europe. But because so many of the traditions associated with Samhain were thoroughly embedded in the culture of England and Ireland, they persisted and became secularized to the point of being non-threatening to the Christian church. Isolated areas continued to celebrate Samhain well into the time of Christian dominance, and records of Samhain can be found in early medieval writings preserved to this day.
Togail Bruidne Dá Derga
Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, or “the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel” contains descriptions of Samhain festivities and traditions. This text dates from the 8th-9th Centuries and contains no influence from Christianity. Another text, this one form around the 13th Century makes references to numerous features of Samhain and its importance to pre-Christian Ireland. The Tain bo Cuailnge, or The Cattle Raid of Cuailnge, is something of a cycle of heroic adventures. Though Christian monks compiled the Tain, it retains much of its pre-Christian mythology. Even the converted felt compelled to document the pagan traditions of Ireland. This testifies to the perseverance of these beliefs and traditions well into the Christian period.
Christianity & The British Isles
As Christianity came to dominate in England, Ireland, and Scotland the pagan celebration of Samhain was completely subsumed by Christian doctrine. In the 8th Century Pope Gregory III instituted All Hallows’ Day, or All Saints’ Day, as an official holy day to be honored by all Christians. This takes place on November 1st. However, there has long been a tradition of beginning these celebrations the night before the official day. Thus, All Hallows’ Eve, or Halloween, became sutured to Christian holy days.
However, the ancient traditions did not simply die out. Pagan Celtic beliefs were integral to the people of the British Isles. The people of England and Ireland continued to honor the pagan traditions, and these traditions were simply transferred to the Christian system. For instance, the tradition of handing out treats on Samhain persisted in the form of “soul cakes.” As with the Celtic tradition, children dressed in costumes presumed to scare the souls of the dead and walked door to door to receive cakes in exchange for prayers for the souls of the dead. These soul cakes are the earliest “treats” we now associate with trick-or-treating.
Changes in Ireland
Subsequently , People in Ireland continued to carve turnips to resemble fearsome spirits and ghosts from the realm of the dead. Townspeople still built bonfires to ward of the dead and to terrify demons. All of this was simply transferred to the language of Christianity. The Samhain traditions remained in place. But the language of the spirit realms became the language of souls and Samhain became All Hallows’ Eve. The night became tinged with Christian demonology.
As immigration from England and Ireland brought these traditions to America, the old traditions came also. These traditions and celebrations also meshed with native American beliefs and the trappings of corn and pumpkins supplanted the Old-World decorations of turnips and offerings of wheat.
Halloween- Early America
In early America, Halloween was largely absent due to the Puritan dominance in colonial America. But as immigration patterns brought large numbers of people from Ireland and other parts of Europe with similar traditions, Halloween became more visible. It was the influx of Irish immigrants in the late Nineteenth Century that really solidified Halloween as a holiday in the U.S.
Originally Halloween was marked by simple “play parties” designed for children. The earliest examples of trick or treating come from these humble origins. For instance, bobbing for apples also came out of these parties. We should note that apples were routinely offered to the Celtic Gods as offerings during Samhain. It seems the ancient pagan roots of Halloween persisted.
By the end of the Nineteenth Century, children were dressing up in costumes and going from door to door in neighborhoods. The practice of trick or treating had become common. Costumes were almost exclusively ghosts, witches, and demons. This reflects both the ancient origins of Halloween and the Christian influence that associated the pagan origins with the devil. And, as we know, the Twentieth Century saw Halloween become a normal part of childhood.
Certainly many Christian groups denounced Halloween from the beginning. The early Puritans tolerated nothing that potentially stood outside of approved Christian doctrine. Other religious groups tried and failed to stop Halloween at every step of the way. Even today, fundamentalist Christians and other Christian groups denounce Halloween as being a Satanic ritual. This is far from the historical facts of Halloween.
Halloween- Recent Years
In recent years, we have seen a resurgence of interest in the old traditions. Neo-pagans, and Wiccans in particular, have sought to re-invigorate Samhain as a spiritual occasion more than a children’s holiday. Taking account of the ancient veneration of the dead and honoring ancestors has become a serious part of Halloween/Samhain.
October 31 and November 1 are important dates across much of the western world. Many South American countries venerate November 1 as the Day of the Dead, Día de Muertos. This is a time in which people honor the dead and become especially wary of the liminal space between the dead and the living. Even as Christianity overtook ancient pagan belief, the old traditions are steadfast. Even the march of secular life has preserved some of the most ancient forms of the pagan system. Halloween is now just good fun. Children can dress up and go trick or treating. Adults indulge in elaborate costume parties. But the ancient Celts seem to speak through all of this. That space between the living and the dead remains something to treat with care. Herein, the ancient Celts still have something to say to us.