The Enduring Spirit of Halloween
The beginnings of Halloween extend further back in time than many other holidays or celebrations we practice today. It is one of the oldest representations of ritual and belief in the supernatural that exists.
We have the ancient Celtic people to thank for beginning this long-standing autumn tradition. Taking place in the countries we know today as Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the northern region of France, the first rituals took place at least 2,000 years ago. The Celtic people celebrated Samhain (pronounced as sow-in) to acknowledge the end of their harvest season and the coming of winter. Also, the ancient Celts saw November 1 as their New Year’s Day, so the festival was also a celebration of the previous year and the welcoming of the next.
They also believed that on the eve of the New Year, the line between the world of the dead and the world of the living was at its thinnest, and that the dead would be able to cross back to the world of the living.
In honor of such an important time, the Celts celebrated by lighting bonfires and giving gifts of fruits, vegetables, and sacrificed animals to the visiting dead. They did this at least in part to appease the spirits of those returning who might have malevolent intent.
Another common ritual was to dress up in costume to try to predict each others’ futures. This was thought possible more than on any other day because of the presence of the dead. Many believe that costumes were also used as a way to hide from the returning spirits, so the people could walk the earth but not be recognized. Another tradition with ties to our own time is that the Celts would leave food outside their homes as offerings to the dead, similar to trick-or-treating today.
Shortly after the beginning of the first century A.D., the Roman Empire had laid claim to most of the areas the Celts lived. They tried to teach the Celts about Christianity rather than to celebrate such pagan ideas. In order to successfully implement their ideas, the Romans tried to assimilate ideas of their own religion in with Samhain celebrations. For instance, Feralia was a day in the latter portion of October that the Romans used to note those who had passed on. Another of these traditions was one to celebrate a goddess in Roman culture who symbolized aspects of nature, including fruit. The tradition of apple bobbing on Halloween today may have come from this idea.
To further integrate their own religion into the Celts’ traditions, November 1, which was originally celebrated as the first day of the Celtic New Year, was then named the official day of acknowledgement for martyrs and saints of the Catholic church in the seventh century A.D. It is known today as All Saints Day. Several hundred years later, November 2 was named as All Souls Day, meant to pay respects to the departed. What is ironic is that All Souls Day was very much like the ancient celebration of Samhain, with many of the same rituals persisting.
Another way of saying “All Saints Day” is to say “All Hallows Day.” The Celtic people, who were still very tied to their original celebrations, began to call October 31, the day before All Hallows Day, as All Hallows Eve. With some changing of the wording over the years, the name became the one we are most familiar with today: Halloween.
Halloween experienced a slow growth in America. The major turning point in the observance of it came with Irish and English immigrants in the late 1800’s. With them, they carried over the tradition of Halloween celebrations, and they slowly became implemented into our society as we know them today.
Although Halloween tends to be a focus of parties and scary costumes and movies today, much of the original Samhain celebrations had less to do with ideas of malevolent and evil spirits, and more to looking toward the future. It was a time of the year when so much magic was in the air that such things were believed not only possible, but quite attainable.
Halloween as we know it today has survived a lot. If not simply the passage of so much time since its inception, then certainly the many times over the years, both recently and in ancient times, when others have attempted to change it or remove it entirely from our lives. It has persisted through an incredible amount.
So this year, when you put on your costume, hand out candy to children, or just get the sense of mysticism we’ve all felt before on this unique day, remember where it all comes from. Go out, have fun, and celebrate the enduring spirit of Halloween.