The Real History of Halloween

By: Robert Thomson

Two thousand years ago, in the region that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France, the ancient Celts celebrated the end of their summer harvest and the beginning of their new year on November 1. This observance also marked the beginning of their winter season, a time the Celts closely associated with death. They believed that on the previous night, October 31, the boundaries between the dead and the living became blurred, allowing the spirits of the dead to roam the earth. The Celts called this night Samhain, a night where mischievous spirits would cause trouble for the living. During this night, Celtic priests known as Druids gathered to build huge sacred bonfires upon which they sacrificed crops and animals to their deities. The Druids would then make predictions about the future to comfort a people facing the uncertainties of a long, dreary winter. Throughout the land, the Celts wore masks consisting of animal heads and skins, and they, too, attempted to predict each other's futures. After the celebration, the people relit their hearths with fire from the sacred bonfires and prepared for the winter.

By 43 A.D., The Romans had conquered most of the Celtic territory. During their 400-year occupation, they combined a couple of their own celebrations with the traditional Samhain observance. They celebrated the first festival, known as Feralia, near the end of October to commemorate the passing of the dead. Their second festival honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol for Pomona was the apple, a fruit that eventually became incorporated into the Samhain celebrations and is probably the origin of the Halloween practice of bobbing for apples.

During the 800s, Christianity had spread throughout the Celtic lands. In a probable attempt to replace the Celtic observance of the dead, Pope Boniface IV appointed November 1 as All Saints Day, a day to honor the Christian saints and martyrs. The night before All Saints Day was no longer called Samhain, but All Hallowmas (from the Middle English Alholowmesse which means All Saints Day); this night was also referred to as the more familiar All Hallows Eve. By the year 1000, the Catholic Church designated November 2 as "All Souls Day"; a day to honor all of the dead. Although called a different name, All Souls Day basically incorporated many of the Samhain observances, including building bonfires and wearing masks. In accordance with the Church's influence, people dressed in costumes depicting saints, angels or devils. Eventually all three celebrations - All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day - became known as Hallowmas.

Halloween customs arrived on American shores in varied forms via the European immigrants who settled in the colonies. However, the strict Puritan beliefs limited how the customs were practiced. Eventually, as the beliefs and customs of the immigrants merged together, also influenced by the customs of Native Americans, Halloween became more "Americanized". Initial celebrations included public events such as "play parties" that celebrated the harvest. During these celebrations, neighbors would tell tales of the dead and try to predict each other's fortunes - similar to the Celts centuries before them. Unlike those earlier observances, the American celebrations also included singing and dancing that added a measure of frivolity to the holiday.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, new immigrants, particularly Irish immigrants fleeing the great potato famine, helped to popularize Halloween on a national level. Following some English and Irish traditions, neighbors would dress up in costumes and go from house to house asking for money or food; this became the forerunner of the "trick-or-treat" tradition. On Halloween night, young unmarried women believed that they could divine the identity of their future husband through tricks with yarn, mirrors and apple parings.

At the beginning of the 20th century, newspapers and community leaders, fearing that Halloween had become too frightening for young children, requested that parents take the focus off the superstitions surrounding the holiday. The tradition of "trick-or-treat" actually disappeared for awhile. However, between the 1920s and the 1950s, the emphasis on the eerie was revived and tales of ghosts and witchcraft abounded. Pranks became standard as trick-and-treating was reinstituted, focusing more on the young than adults. Children (and adults, as well) dressed in costumes depicting popular characters. To stave off any mischief, families offered treats, including candies, to the neighborhood children making the holiday rounds. This new candied tradition continued to grow, and now Halloween is the country's second largest commercial holiday.

Although the Samhain observance as once practiced no longer exists, the ghosts from its Celtic past still linger in present day traditions and will probably continue to do so for centuries to come.

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