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Ancient history: The origins of Halloween

Halloween
Wikimedia Commons

Modern Halloween traditions have origins that date back thousands of years to ancient Celtic civilizations. The Celts flourished about 2,000 years ago in the regions now known as Ireland and northern France.

The Celtic New Year was November 1. This day marked the end of the summer harvest and ushered in the cold winter season. In ancient times, the frigid, damp, dark days of winter were closely linked to death. On October 31 – the eve of the New Year – the Celts engaged in a celebration known as Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts believed that it was only on October 31 that the spiritual veil was lifted and the boundaries between the living and the dead became obscured. During this time, the ghosts of the dead could return to visit their loved ones. However, evil spirits could also return to wreak havoc in people’s lives and on next year’s crops. It was on this one night of spiritual liberation that Celtic priests built large ritual bonfires upon which animals were sacrificed to various gods in hopes of gaining favor for the next year’s harvest. The Celts who participated in the festival of Samhain traditionally wore costumes made from animal hides and heads.

The Roman infiltration

By 43 A.D., Romans had conquered most of the Celtic territory and many cultural customs had coalesced. The Romans celebrated a late-October festival commemorating the dead called Feralia. They also honored Pomona – the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Over time and with the amalgamation of cultures, these Roman festivals were incorporated into the Celtic tradition of Samhain.

Christian influence

By the 9th century, the doctrine of Christianity had spread to Celtic clans and ultimately replaced most Celtic spiritual practices. In 1000 A.D., the well-established Christian church officially named November 2 as All Soul’s Day or All-hallows eve. This day was set aside in honor of the dearly departed. Most historians believe that this move on behalf of the church was made in an effort to replace the Celtic festival of Samhain with a celebration that was sanctioned by the church. Similar to the Samhain celebration, the All Soul’s Day festivities included bonfires, masks, and costumes.

All-hallows Eve in the New World

Many of the first settlers that came to America were strictly Protestant and did not celebrate All-hallows eve. But as more ethnic European groups with looser religious practices came to the new world, All-hallows eve, or Halloween as it came to be known, took on a distinctly American flavor. Colonists held traditional harvest celebrations, told ghost stories, and played pranks on each other. But Halloween began to change by the middle of the 19th century with the arrival of millions of Irish immigrants who were fleeing the potato famine in Ireland. This influence of Irish culture popularized Halloween nationwide. Soon people were not only dressing up for Halloween, but they were going house to house collecting “treats” – giving birth to the tradition known as “trick-or-treat.”

The festival that started out as an ancient harvest celebration with great spiritual significance has evolved into a night of spooky fun that is much-loved by American society.