History of Halloween
Straddling the line between fall and winter, plenty and paucity, life and death, Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition.
It is thought to have originated with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts.
In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs; the holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain. The evening before was known as All Hallows’ Eve and later Halloween.
Halloween or Hallowe’en (/ˌhæləˈwiːn, -oʊˈiːn, ˌhɑːl-/; a contraction of “All Hallows’ Evening”), also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve, is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day.
It initiates the triduum of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. Within Allhallowtide, the traditional focus of All Hallows’ Eve revolves around the theme of using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.”
According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic Samhain. Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.
Some folklorists have detected its origins in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia, it is more typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain”, which comes from the Old Irish for “summer’s end”.
Samhain (pronounced sah-win or sow-in) was the first and most important of the four quarter days in the medieval Gaelic calendar and was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It was held on or about 31 October – 1 November and kindred festivals were held at the same time of year by the Brittonic Celts; for example Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall) and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany).
Samhain/Calan Gaeaf marked the end of the harvest season and beginning of winter or the ‘darker half’ of the year.
it was seen as a liminal time, when the spirits or fairies (the Aos Sí) could more easily come into our world and were particularly active.
The Aos Sí were both respected and feared, with individuals often invoking the protection of God when approaching their dwellings.
At Samhain, it was believed that the Aos Sí needed to be propitiated (act of winning the favor of) to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink, or portions of the crops, were left for the Aos Sí
The souls of the dead were also said to revisit their homes. Places were set at the dinner table or by the fire to welcome them. The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one night or day of the year seems to have ancient origins and is found in many cultures throughout the world.
In 19th century Ireland, “candles would be lit and prayers formally offered for the souls of the dead.
After this the eating, drinking, and games would begin”.
Throughout the Gaelic and Welsh regions, the household festivities included rituals and games intended to divine one’s future, especially regarding death and marriage.
Nuts and apples were often used in these divination rituals.
Special bonfires were lit and there were rituals involving them.
Their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective and cleansing powers, and were also used for divination.
All Saints was introduced in the year 609, but was originally celebrated on 13 May. In 835, it was switched to 1 November (the same date as Samhain) at the behest of Pope Gregory IV. Some suggest this was due to Celtic influence, while others suggest it was a Germanic idea.
Ireland, Scotland, Mann and Wales, the festival included mumming and guising, the latter of which goes back at least as far as the 16th century. This involved people going house-to-house in costume (or in disguise), usually reciting verses or songs in exchange for food.
It may have come from the Christian custom of souling (see below) or it may have a Gaelic folk origin, with the costumes being a means of imitating, or disguising oneself from, the Aos Sí. In Scotland, youths went house-to-house on 31 October with masked, painted or blackened faces, often threatening to do mischief if they were not welcomed.
“Souling”, the custom of baking and sharing soul cakes for all christened souls, has been suggested as the origin of trick-or-treating. The custom dates back at least as far as the 15th century and was a bit more wide spread. Groups of poor people, often children, would go door-to-door during Allhallowtide, collecting soul cakes, in exchange for praying for the dead, especially the souls of the givers’ friends and relatives.
The “traditional illumination for guisers or pranksters abroad on the night in some places was provided by turnips or mangel wurzels (a form of beet), hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins”. These were common in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands in the 19th century, as well as in Somerset. In the 20th century they spread to other parts of England and became generally known as jack-o’-lanterns.
Development of artifacts and symbols associated with Halloween formed over time. Jack-o’-lanterns are traditionally carried by guisers on All Hallows’ Eve in order to frighten evil spirits. There is a popular Irish Christian folktale associated with the jack-o’-lantern, which in lore, is said to represent a “soul who has been denied entry into both heaven and hell”: