Every autumn the temperature drops, the leaves turn into a beautiful array of colors, and we all await the very end of October, where we dress up and wait until the night sky falls and the spirits rise, so we may celebrate them and everything else that goes bump in the night. As you cover your hands in pumpkin guts, plan the perfect costume, cozy up to a scary movie, and scope out the parties, you are probably soaking in the classic Halloween you grew up celebrating, however it just happens that all of these things we have come to love are actually a culmination of centuries of tradition.
The first markings of Halloween tradition actually go as far back as thirteen BCE, with the earliest of the Celtic Samhain celebrations. The Celts were a band of tribes all over Western Europe, that eventually settled around Ireland and Britain. They were known for their warriors, their weaponry, their distinct language, and their religion. Their religion was a polytheistic religion that incorporated gods from the Greek and Roman religions, as well as creatures and folklore from the Irish tradition. Samhain was a fire festival that celebrated a seasonal change, specifically the time between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice and was the most important out of four yearly celebrations. The festival celebrated the harvest and their lives, both given to them by the gods. They believed that on Samhain the walls between the worldly plane and the spiritual plane were weakened. In the days before Samhain, many would put on costumes to hide their faces and go door to door singing songs for the dead, for which they would be rewarded with small cakes. During the festival they gave thanks to their gods by lighting a large community fire, as well as lighting fires in their homes that would burn throughout the night. They prepared offerings and laid them throughout the village and on their doorsteps, to thank ancestors and appease the monsters that came through the spiritual plane with them. As time moved on the celebration narrowed to a specific date, which was October 31st through November 1st.
Over the centuries the Roman Empire had conquered most of the land in which the Celts lived. During this time two traditional Roman holidays began to meld into Samhain. The two holidays were Feralia and Pomona. Feralia was celebrated in late October and was meant to celebrate the dead. Pomona was around the same time, and celebrated the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, who was often symbolised with an apple. When the Roman Empire came into the first century AD, the Catholic church began to rise in power, and eventually swept across all of Western Europe as the dominant religion. Through the years the church tried to do everything to convert the Celts, and therefore tried to reconfigure their traditions. In the fifth century they tried change the holiday by moving it to May and naming it All Saints Day. However that did not work, and the autumn fire festivals persisted. Finally, four centuries later the pope moved All Saints Day to November 1st, with All Souls Day following on November 2nd. Of course this did not stop the Celts' traditions which started on October 31st, so it was renamed All Hallows Eve. These celebrations continued on for centuries.
For those familiar with an American Halloween, the traditions did not simply flow in from Europe, like so many others have. The strict protestant lifestyle of colonial America prevented such wicked celebrations. However over time the southern colonies’ culture began to evolve into something vastly different then the traditional Protestantism of the north. They began to learn of native celebrations for the harvest and incorporated traditions into their harvests. Large festivals where they would celebrate the harvest by dressing up and putting on small skits for the town to watch. These festivals went on even after America became independent. Then in the 1840’s the Irish Potato Famine happened, and there was a flux of Irish immigrants into America. From there the traditions from Celts, Romans, Natives, and the new American market mixed, making the celebration you see today. Of course as time went on the celebration became more secular, moving from a religious festival to a way to bond communities together.
Now you know why you like carving and lighting up pumpkins like the harvest fires, going door to door to collect treats much like the singers of Samhain, watching movies of monsters like those that crossed the spiritual plane, bobbing for apples like the Romans celebrating their goddess Pomona, and dressing up like many natives and early colonists to parade around as someone else.
Markale, Jean, and Jon E. Graham. The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween: Celebrating the Dark Half of The Year. Inner Traditions, 2001.
Morton, Lisa. Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. Reaktion Books, 2019.
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