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Origins of Halloween

Posted by admin On May - 17 - 2011

History & Origins of Halloween

Every year, the Halloween we celebrate in North America on October 31st, is a melting pot of Roman & Catholic rituals, ancient Celtic practices, and old European traditions.  This time of year crosses the line between Autumn and Winter and also abundance as well as death.  Harvest festivals are held at this time, as well.  The holiday is both a time to be superstitious, and a time for celebration.  Many cultures believe that this is the day of the dead when the latter can return to earth one day a year and be amongst the living.

The Celtic people wear costumes and light fires to send these wandering ghosts away.  A combination of holidays and celebrations have combined to form our modern Halloween.  During the 1800s, Halloween started to lose its secular associations and became a mostly children’s holiday.  Adults also like to dress up and celebrate on October 31st.  Perhaps surprisingly, Halloween is second in popularity to Christmas.  Many people do not know how Halloween started but only that they enjoy dressing up and having a great time every year!

There are two sides to Halloween.  A variety of beliefs and superstitions combine to form the two sides:  Ghosts, goblins, evil spirits should be avoided, and holding theme parties, dressing up and going tick or treating, should not.  Probably the majority of people think of Halloween as a time to celebrate and they don’t reference any type of ritual with pagan overtones or any occult theme.  As it turns out, October 31st is the last day of the old Celtic calendar and this date was used to honor the dead of the previous and past years.

All Hallows Eve goes back over two millennia and it’s the night right before All Saints Day.  The latter was made up by Christians in order to convert pagans, and saints were honored by Catholics on November 1st.  A few traditions are consistent through the different versions of Halloween.  Every culture has a slightly different view of Halloween but practices can be the same throughout the years.  The culture of Halloween goes back to the Druids, who lived in Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe.  A feast on the day called Samhain was used to honor the dead and this was held on October 31st.  In Mexico, they also hold a Day of the Dead celebration with skeleton-shaped candies and little wooden carvings for sale to anyone shopping in the local market.

Samhain means Summer’s end, or the month of November.  It was a harvest festival with lots of large bonfires marking the beginning of the new year.  Superstition fanned the flames of both celebration, and the bonfires.  Dead souls supposedly roamed around village streets at night during this evening.  Treats and gifts were left out to pacify the not-so-friendly ones.  This would ensure that next year’s crops weren’t cursed and this way of giving treats evolved into our modern trick or treating tradition.

All Saints Day was celebrated on November 1st and All Souls Day on November 2nd.  Bonfires were lit to represent all of the souls in eternal fire in purgatory.  People would go around different houses and offer prayers for all of these dead souls, in exchange for soul cakes.  Mumming, aka guising, was associated with Christmas only in the beginning.  It involved chanting rhymes (perhaps “trick or treat”), play acting, and parading around in costumes. Guise was probably the root word for disguise.

Irish immigrants brought these Halloween-type practices and traditions to North America around the middle of the 1800s.  Souling and mumming had been forgotten in Ireland and prayer, along with feasts and divination games like bobbing for apples were the main theme for their Halloween celebrations.  A hundred years ago, our Halloween may not have been recognized by these early Halloween participants.