Pumpkins, jack-o-lanterns, candy corn, apples, bobbing for apples, bonfires, hayrides, kids in costumes begging for candy, spooks and spirits, witches, and folk lore all are part of Halloween. What a strange holiday this is, but where did it all begin?
Come with me on a short historical journey to discover the beginnings of this holiday. This traditional fall festival is perhaps one of the world’s oldest holidays with roots going back thousands of years. According to History.com, its origins date to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived throughout Europe but primarily in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Highland Scotland, and Northern France celebrated their new year beginning November 1. That was an important date because it marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the long dark days of winter and a time associated with death. They believed that at this time the lines between the living and the dead were blurred and the spirits of the dead walked the earth. They also believed that this was a time when the Druids, or priests, would make predictions about the future.
Huge bonfires were built for sacrifices of crops and animals to appease the Celtic gods. The people wore costumes of animal heads and skins and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. After the celebration they went home and relit their hearth fires from embers from the sacred bonfire to protect them from misfortunes during the coming winter.
During the 400 year occupation of the Romans beginning in 43 AD two Roman festivals were combined with the celebration of Samhain. The Romans observed Feralia, a day in late October when they honored the dead, and the celebration of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The apple symbolized Pomona and it is believed this where the tradition of apples and bobbing for apples began.
When Christianity spread to the Celtic lands in the 800’s the holiday also incorporated All Saints Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs, on November 1. It is believed that Pope Boniface IV attempted to replace the festival of the dead with a related church sanctioned observance. This celebration was called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints Day) and the evening before, the night of Samhain, was called All-hallows Eve which eventually became Halloween.
Around 1000 AD the church designated November 2 as All Souls’ Day which honored all dead. It was celebrated with bonfires, parades, and costumes featuring angels, saints, and the devil.
When the Europeans came to this country they brought their Halloween traditions with them and when the Irish began immigrating in throngs during the Irish potato famine in the mid 1800’s they seemed to cement the traditions. The Irish, with strong ties to the Celts and their priests, the Druids, took the celebration one step further with the introduction of the jack-o-lantern.
The jack-o-lantern comes from an old Irish myth about a man named “Stingy Jack”. According to the tale, Jack tricked the devil into not claiming his soul when he died; but, when he eventually did die he was not allowed into heaven because he was considered an unsavory character. The devil, true to his word, did not claim Jack’s soul but would not allow him into hell. He sent him into the night armed with a single burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the earth ever since. The Irish referred to this figure as “Jack of the Lantern” and then it was shortened to “Jack O’Lantern”.
In Ireland and Scotland people made their own versions of Jack’s lantern by carving scary faces into turnips and potatoes and put them in windows and doorways to keep away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits. In England, large beets were used. When these people came to America they soon found that pumpkins made the perfect jack-o-lantern.
I find it curious that every year when Halloween comes around some people don’t believe in celebrating it because they say it is the devil’s day. Actually, after reviewing the history of the day, nothing could be farther from the truth. It has always been a time of some religious significance and celebrating the harvest. True, it did not begin as a Christian holiday but it was a sacred observance to the people of the ancient world. Later it did take on Christian significance as a time to honor saints and those who have passed on.
It is interesting to note that the same themes of celebrating the harvest and honoring the dead are found around the world. It is a time of preparation for the long winter ahead and a time of parties, parades, and costumes. Today, we find ourselves at the crossroads between summer and winter, warmth and cold, plenty and famine, religious and secular. October 31 is an interesting blend of the ancient Celtic practices, Catholic, and Roman rituals which are both religious and festive.
Just as the Celts lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off roaming spirits, let us join the fun. Today it is a time for children, families, and neighborhoods to come together for some fun and craziness before we must face the long cold winter days of slogging through snow. So, in a few days when we see the neighborhood kids dressed as roaming goblins remember we are continuing an ancient tradition. TRICK OR TREAT!