At this time of the year, Halloween lovers are a flurry of activity. Shopping for costumes, decorating yards and houses, buying candy for Trick r' treaters, carving pumpkin and hanging out ghosts. By why are we doing these things? We celebrate it with the same symbols every year, pumpkins, skeletons & ghosts, devils and demons, costumes and candy, but why?
To find out the answer, we have to look way, way, way back in history. Around 800 BC, there was an ancient society of people known as the Celts. They populated what is now known as Ireland, Northern France and the United Kingdom. They were a nomadic people, living off of the land that they traveled.
The Celts relied so much on the land for their existence, that their celebrations and festivals were centered around the seasons. Fall was the time of harvest and storing away as much food as they could in order to survive through the winter. Winter was a difficult time for these pastoral people, since they relied on nature. Often times, not having enough food and supplies stored had deadly consequences. That is why the Celts associated this season with death.
The Celts believed that nature and mother Earth would be reborn in the spring through the death of Winter. They knew that the world around them as entering a dormant period. Plants are bare of their leaves and fruit; dormant until spring. Days are shorter and the nights longer.
November 1st was the Celtic New year and they celebrated the harvest in a festival known as Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween). This was the time when crops were harvested, live stock was brought in from pastures and everyone readied for the long, cold, winter months.
The Celts believed that this was also the only time of the year, where the dead could mingle with the living. The Celts believed that during this time, the souls of the deceased, who had passed on that year, would travel into the spirit world. Bonfires were lit, sacrifices of their harvest and their stock were made, all in order to guide the deceased loved ones to the spirit world.
Over the course of time, these traditions were altered by other religions and groups of people who took over the Celtic land. The Romans who first took over Celtic land, also celebrated their fest day of the dead, Feralia, in late October. Catholicism left it's footprint on the holiday when Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome in honor of all Christian martyrs, thus creating the Catholic fest, All Saints Day, which is now celebrated on November 1st. In 1000 A.D. Pope Gregory III declared November 2nd as All Souls Day, a fest which also honored deceased relatives.
Halloween didn't become mainstream in America until 1846. The heavy Protestant influences suppressed the ancient traditions of honoring the dead. But, due to the Great Potato Famine that devastated Ireland in 1846, droves of Irish immigrants found their new home in America and brought their anciently rooted Halloween customs with them.
Thank the Great Pumpkin for the Irish!
I personally think that it's amazing to see how this holiday has developed from what it was, for the Celts, to what it is now. Knowing where this holiday is rooted, gives me a deeper appreication of it. It is gives me educated information to share with those who regard Halloween as something evil. In my opinion, this is such a naturally rooted holiday. It's about life and it's about death. It's about the seasons of the Earth and the seasons of our lives. Those are things that unite all humans.
In closing, I just want to say that this is a VERY condensed explanation of Halloween's roots. I could research this for a month and probably write a novel on it, which doesn't sound like a bad idea, because there is a LOT of information out there about Halloween. That's half the reason it took me so long to write this post. It was difficult keeping it all straight :)
In the coming Thursdays, I'll be writing about how modern day Halloween traditions sprang from Samhain traditions and the ancient Celtic beliefs.