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From Celtics to Catholics: A Brief History of Halloween

Rooted in Samhain

Nearly 2,000 years ago, ancient Celtics celebrated the festival of Samhain in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. Pronounced "sow-win," the Celtics used the holiday of Samhain to celebrate the harvest, and to welcome the dark half of the year. One of four fire festivals, Samhain was the most significant, being situated between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. A mandatory three-day celebration, participants would celebrate with communal fires built by Celtic priests, or Druids, animal sacrifices, and a mandatory peace-order: during this time, any crime was punishable by death.

Those who celebrated Samhain believed that the veil between the spirit world and the physical world would break down, allowing those in the spirit world to wander the earth. Druids used the presence of spirits to make predictions for the coming year. In order to dissuade the spirits from kidnapping them, Ancient Celtics dressed as animals and monsters, and families lit bonfires known as Samghnagans to protect against witches and fairies. They carved turnips into jack-o-lanterns, and tied them to sticks.


By about 43 A.D., the Romans had conquered nearly all Celtic territory, and would rule the territory for nearly 400 years. During that time, the Roman festivals of Feralia and Pomona were integrated into the festival of Samhain. Feralia was a day to commemorate the passing of the dead, traditionally celebrated in late October. Pomona is the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, and added the tradition of bobbing for apples to Halloween celebrations today.

As time went on, the celebration evolved slightly to encompass the culture of the area. Ireland is credited with switching from turnips to pumpkins, creating the classic jack-o-lanterns we carve to this day. The Irish also celebrated with mumming: dressing in costumes and singing songs to the dead. Singers were rewarded with cakes. The modern tradition of pranks the night before Hallow

een can also be traced to Samhain origin, though the tricks during Samhain were blamed on fairies. There were other cultural evolutions that did not persist to modern day - in Wales, men engaged in violent games, throwing burning wood at each other and setting off fireworks; English tradition involved men parading with noisemakers.

The Jack-o-Lantern Legend

Taken from ancient Irish Celtic tradition, the tale recalls a man named Stingy Jack that had a drink with the devil. He convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin, which he promptly pocketed, along with a silver cross to keep the devil from turning back. Eventually, Jack freed the devil, making him promise not to bother Jack for one year. After one year, Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree, and then carved a cross into the trunk, trapping the devil in the tree until he promised he wouldn’t bother Jack for ten years. When Jack eventually died, God wouldn’t allow him into heaven, and the Devil wouldn’t allow him into hell. Instead, he was send into the dark night with only a burning coal inside a carved-out turnip to light his way. Irish legend says he is still roaming the earth to this day, referred to as “Jack of the Lantern,” which was eventually shortened to Jack-o-lantern. Originally, the Irish and Scottish made their own version’s of Jack’s lantern in order to scare him - and other spirits like him - away from their homes.

Pagan Samhain + Christian Expansion

In 609 A.D., Pope Boniface IV declared May 13 as the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day. Later, Pope Gregory III expanded the feast to include saints as well as martyrs, and shifted the observance from May to November 1st. Renamed All Saint’s Day, the celebration was also known Alholowmesse in Middle English, commonly shortened to All-hallows or All-hallowmas. The night before All Saint’s Day - the traditional night of Samhain - began to be called All-Hallow’s Eve, and eventually, Halloween. As Christianity expanded and began to incorporate some Celtic tradition, the Church then declared November 2nd All Soul’s Day, a day to honor the dead. Historians widely believe that the creation of All Soul’s Day was an attempt to replace Samhain with a related, yet church-sanctioned holiday. All Soul’s Day bears a number of similarities to Samhain: both holidays involve large bonfires, dressing up in costumes, and celebrating the dead.

Interestingly enough, trick-or-treating likely originated with All Soul’s Day. During the festival, the poor would beg for food, and those attending the festival would give them “soul cakes” in return for a promise to pray for their dead relatives. This was encouraged by the Catholic church to replace the ancient Samhain tradition of leaving out food and wine for roaming spirits. Children copied this practice, and started “going a-souling” to houses, where they would be given food, ale, and treats.

Halloween in American Culture

In many early northern colonies, the celebration of Halloween was limited or non-existent, due to the heavy presence of rigid Protestant belief systems that viewed the tradition as pagan. However, in Maryland and other more southern colonies, the European tradition of Halloween became enmeshed in American tradition.

Celebrations included parties that celebrated the harvest, stories of the dead, fortune-telling, dancing and singing. A rush of immigrants in the latter half of the 19th century expanded the celebration of Halloween to the remainder of the country, and solidified the celebration of Halloween as an American tradition. In the late 1800s, there was a push to mold Halloween from a frightening holiday to a holiday about community, which widely popularized Halloween parties throughout the end of the century into the 1900s. During that time, it was encouraged to remove any grotesque or frightening aspect of Halloween, which in turn stripped it of its religious and spiritual overtones by the beginning of the 1900s. Halloween became a secular, yet community-centered holiday.


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