Halloween is a modern holiday of celebration and superstition. Everything spooky and creepy. A time for goosebumps, and things that go bump in the night. This is when our imaginations gets the better of us and not always in the most pleasant of ways. Halloween marks an occasion for children to dress in costume and get treats. Children and adults alike celebrate with parties. Theme parks become dark places full of ghouls and goblins lurking in dim corners. Halloween is both a time of fun and a time to face our deepest darkest fears and laugh in the face of death. But how did Halloween come about? Is it really the devil’s holiday or is it something rooted in ancient religions?
Halloween is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (Sow-en). During this time people lit bonfires and wore costumes hoping to ward off roaming ghosts. The Celts lived in the area that is now comprised of Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France. (“The ancient origins of Halloween - Bangkok Jack News”) The Celtic New Year was celebrated on November 1st. It marks the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark and frigid winter. Because this time of year is often correlated to death as the world become dark and cold, Celts believed that on the night before the New Year, the veil between the worlds thinned. They thought that on this night of October 31, the spirits of the dead roamed the earth. Further, these wandering spirits could cause trouble for the living and damage crops. Celts also understood that the presence of these spirits made it easier for the Druids, who are Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. (“Read All About It: The History of Halloween | Milford Library”) These predictions were a source of comfort for these superstitious people during the long dark winter.
This was a time ruled by unseen forces. The people lived off of the land and were at the mercy of nature. Winter, a frighting period of darkness, when anything could happen was also a time of withdrawal and introspection. During those months, families lived off of their harvest. What they had put away was all the food available. On Samhain, the end of harvest, they faced that coming darkness. In celebration and preparation, Druids, built huge sacred bonfires, and the people gathered to burn crops and offer up animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities in very much the same way ancient Christians offered the sacrificial lamb to God. During the celebration, all hearth fires were extinguished, and the Celts donned costumes of furs and animal heads. Later, after the festivities, hearth fires were once again lit using torches and embers from the sacred bonfire as protection from the coming cold and darkness.
Feralia-Festival of the Dead
Other parts of the world held similar celebrations. Early Romans celebrated Feralia, the last of three festivals held in honor of the dead in February but it exhibits the same thought as the Celtic Samhain.
During Feralia, it was customary for ancient Romans to travel to the tombs of their ancestors where they would leave offerings of wreathes food, herbs, and bread. They scattered flowers around the tombs and wealthy families would prepare lavish public feasts. Feralia was an occasion of mourning, remembrance, and respect of the dead. Hearth fires remained unlit; marriages were banned during this time, as was worship. All temples were closed. One ancient story tells about a time when Feralia was ignored during war time. This caused the spirits to rise from their graves and haunt the streets of Rome until tribute was properly made to the spirits in their tombs.
Pomona, Goddess of Fruit and Trees
Another celebration was on a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The apple is the sacred symbol of Pomona. Our modern tradition of explains the tradition of "bobbing" for apples can be traced to the celebration of Pomona. (“Halloween: Origins, Meaning & Traditions - HISTORY”) It has been said that Vertumnus, the god of the harvest was her husband. His feast day is August 23rd, and he represented the changing of the seasons as well as the harvest.
Day of the Dead
In ancient times, the Mexican Day of the Dead was celebrated in August and was celebrated for a full month. However, it is now celebrated at the beginning of November. In the pre-Hispanic era skulls were commonly kept as trophies and displayed during the rituals to symbolize death and rebirth. During this time people went to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed. Private altars containing the favorite foods and beverages are built, and photos and memorabilia of the departed were displayed. This encouraged visits by the spirits. It was, and still is, believed that the souls hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them.
All Souls Day
Throughout history festivals honoring the departed are quite prevalent worldwide. Each culture offers its own traditions, fests, customs, and celebrations. Though separated by miles it is interesting to note that many of these celebrations are so similar not only in beliefs but also timing. Furthermore, Pope Gregory III expanded the festival of Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day to include all saints and moved the observance from May 13 to November 2nd.
In 1000 A.D., the church declared November 2nd All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It is widely believed that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of Samhain with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. This is evidenced in that All Souls Day was celebrated much like Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. This celebration was called All-hallows or All-Hallowmas with the evening before called All Hallows Eve or Halloween.
The veil thins
Halloween has a rich and earthy history. It marks the coming of the darkness and the cold, a period of reflection for the coming year or as our modern calendar reads before the coming year. It is a time to remember those who have gone before you into the afterworld. And yes, it ushers in a season that was often frightening for people in ancient times. A season that in our constantly lit world we do not understand. Have a blessed season and enjoy the harvest.
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