What Is Halloween?
The modern version of Halloween is the remnant of the Christian feast day of All Hallows’ Eve. It was also the celebration of Allhallowtide, a series of feast days spanning from October 31st to November 2nd. These feast days were a time for remembering saints, martyrs and other faithful departed souls.
Many of the feast days that encompassed what we now know as Halloween came from a series of Celtic festivals. Specifically, the festival most thought to be the origin of Halloween comes from Samhain, a festival celebrated by the Gaels of northern Europe.
Samhain is a festival that the Gaels used to mark the latter half of the year and onward. Samhain itself was celebrated on what we would now know as November 1st on the modern calendar.
While Samhain has traditionally been celebrated as a harvest festival, its roots go much deeper than that. Before the Gaels were harvesters, they were a pastoral people, dependant on herds of livestock.
Since Samhain is celebrated on 1 November, it is opposite Beltane (1 May) on the Gaelic calendar. These two dates are incredibly important to herdsmen: at the beginning of summer in May, cattle are driven to the summer pastures; at the beginning of winter, they’re driven back.
From its original pastoral roots, Samhain became a festival to celebrate the beginning of the new year and the end of the last. Livestock were driven fore and back. Crops were harvested and stored. Time went on and on in a yearly cycle.
The cyclic, forward and back motion of the Samhain festival lent itself to being viewed as a festival for the dead, as well. Some would be born into the world: others would begin the journey into the otherworld of the Gaelic religion.
How Did Halloween Start?
So how did we go from the Gaelic tradition of Samhain to the modern mostly-Christian celebration of Halloween? It began with the efforts of Catholic priests like St. Patrick and St. Columcille, who converted the Gaelic peoples of the British Isles away from their pagan religions and festivals and toward Christianity.
Many of the customs and traditions that the Gaels used were subsumed into Christianity on the orders of Pope Gregory I. In 601 A.D., Gregory I issued a now-famous edict to his missionaries. It concerned the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert.
Gregory ordered that, where possible, Christianity should be made compatible with native beliefs. So if a group worshipped a tree, then the missionaries should consecrate the tree in the name of Jesus.
This was a brilliant way to spread Christianity, and it was used as a basic tenet of early Catholic missionary work. Much like pagan icons, pagan holidays were also associated with Christian holy days. Christmas was set for December 25 to coincide with the winter solstice. All Hallows’ Eve was set for October 31. And All Hallows’ Day was set for November 1, the same day as the Gaelic festival of Samhain.
This helped the Christian holidays slowly replace the Gaelic pagan ones. However, the deities celebrated by the Gaels did not go away entirely, even if their worshippers did. They simply became things like faeries or leprechauns.
Samhain was one of those holidays that didn’t go away entirely. The symbolism of the journey that the dead take to the afterlife was too strong to quash. Instead of trying to quash it outright, the Catholic clergy set up another feast day to redirect the devotion toward Samhain to a more Christian holiday.
This new feast day was set for November 2. All Souls’ Day was declared as a holiday commemorate the souls of all the faithful Christians who had departed this world. Since many of the Gaelic peoples who would be celebrating this day were newly-converted Christians, it helped meld the old ways of praying for the dead during Samhain with the newer, Christian way of praying only for the souls of the faithful departed.
Why Do We Celebrate Halloween?
In many ways, the reason that we still celebrate Halloween is because the living have very much taken over for the dead. Where once people would set out gifts of food and drink to win the favor of the hallowed dead, they now set it out instead for the living.
This custom comes specifically from England. During the medieval period, people would bake cakes, called souls, and leave them out for others, specifically children and the poor, who would in turn sing prayers or songs for the souls of the people who were giving out the cakes.
The practice of giving out souls slowly morphed into trick-or-treating as we as know it. The use of costumes can be traced all the way back to the original festival of Samhain. People would dress up as incarnations of ghosts, fairies, and other spirits in order not to be harassed by those same spirits as they crossed over into the other world.
When Is Halloween?
Halloween is celebrated on October 31st throughout the Christian world, since it is the first day of the holidays that make up Allhallowtide: All Hallows’ Eve, All Hallows’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Now that we’ve talked a little bit about the history of Halloween, we’ll leave you with a couple bits of Halloween trivia — great to surprise your guests with at your next Halloween party!
- More than 17,000 tons of candy corn will be produced this year.
- One quarter of all the candy purchased in the United States is bought specifically for Halloween.
- The original Jack-o-lanterns were carved out of turnips or potatoes.
- Pumpkins became part of Halloween when Irish immigrants came to America and found that pumpkins were easier to carve than the potatoes or turnips they had been using.
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Halloween Origin Sources
- Halloween: The Fantasy and Folklore of All Hallows: https://www.loc.gov/folklife/halloween-santino.html
- Top 10 Little-known Halloween facts: http://www.examiner.net/x1389365331/Top-10-Little-known-Halloween-facts-trivia
- The History of Candy Corn: https://www.bhg.com/halloween/recipes/the-history-of-candy-corn/
- Old English Customs Extant at the Present Time: https://books.google.com/books?id=hHVbAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA166#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Hallowtide: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/little-moreton-hall/features/hallowtide-at-little-moreton-hall
- Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night: https://books.google.com/books?id=stWZ_UDteMIC&pg=PA22#v=onepage&q&f=false
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