halloween history

Halloween History & Origins

halloween history
Halloween...history has it that the modern holiday featuring ghouls and goblins going from door to door with an extortion scheme featuring "tricks or treats" is actually a merger of customs arising from both pagan and Christian traditions.  According to most compilers of Halloween history, the holiday actually originated in the ancient Celtic ritual of Samhain that marked the completion of the final harvest.

The festival of Samhain dates back to the 5th century B.C.  In Ireland, October 31 was the date that marked the official "end of summer" and the beginning of the new year based on the natural cycles of the earth. The folk belief was that this was the time of year when the "veil between the worlds" (the earth and the otherworld) was the thinnest and most easily penetrated. On Halloween, history has it that the laws of space and time were temporarily suspended, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living.

During Samhain, the pagan Druids created an enormous bonfire on a hill in central Ireland and all the Celtic tribes extinguished the fires in their own homes and travelled to it the flames to relight their fires from a common source, signifying their unity and to bring good fortune to their households.  Not surprisingly, it was an occasion for a major festival, with spiritual ritual as well as celebration.

Understandably, given the "thinness of the veil" between the worlds of the living and the dead, it was a time that facilitated divination (seeing into the future, dreaming, prophecy, and the occurrence of visions) and stimulated phobias about the possibility of becoming possessed by one of the spirits of the dead who were wandering the earth searching for a body to occupy.


The word Halloween, history tells, actually came from the Roman Catholic Church as a contraction of the "All Hallows Eve".  Occurring simultaneously with Samhain, the eve of "All Hallows Day, also known as "All Souls (or Saints) Day", was celebrated in remembrance of the Saints and other beloved departed on the first of November.

During the Roman occupation of the Celtic regions in the first century A.D., many of the ancient Samhain customs were adopted into the religious holiday (some scholars say "co-opted" to persuade the locals to accept the foreign religion).

One example of the merger of pagan and Christian practices was the practice of "trick or treating". In the Christian tradition, beggars were allowed to come to the doors and ask for "All-Souls Cakes" (currant-filled biscuits or scones). In return they promised to pay  by saying prayers for the recently deceased of the household. If the household was stingy, vandalism was to be expected.

In the pagan tradition, gifts of food and drink were left on the doorstep to "feed" the wandering spirits and prevent their coming into the house looking for food.

Given this Halloween history and lore, the presence of ghosts, skeletons, and demons on our porches should hardly surprize us!


Why do we have witches on brooms, bats, and black cats as symbols of Halloween? History has it that, because of the church's disapproval of the pagan ways, including rituals involving live sacrifices, they exploited the common folks' fear of them.

After all, making contact between the living and the dead was thought to be the work of witches, cats were their familiars, and bats were creatures of the night. So it was logical they were incorporated into Halloween to stereotype or "make light of" these aspects of the ancient pagan religions.

Since the Greek goddess Hecate is the goddess of witchcraft, Halloween (actually Samhain) became an important festival day in the wiccan tradition as well.


And what do Jack-O-Lanterns have to do with Halloween? History tells us that the Irish farmers carved little lanterns out of turnips to carry their new flames lit from the Samhain bonfire back to their homes. Since it was thought that flames would flicker when spirits were present, this association of the spirits with the turnips may have led to the tradition of carving scary faces on them.

Brought to North America during the 1840's by Irish immigrating because of the potato famine in Ireland, the custom changed to carving pumpkins since they were more plentiful here, and easier to carve!

Orange and black, the traditional colors of Halloween, represent the orange of pumpkins and the black of darkness.


Halloween history and folklore reveal a fascinating blend of traditions. 

The message of Halloween, history tells us, is that it is a time to reflect, to give thanks for the harvest and to honor "those who have gone on before us". . .  a time to recognize the eternal cycle of life.

 

 

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