As you may have noticed, it is the month of October or as I like to call it, the month of spooks. Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I thought it would be fun to learn more about the history of some of the traditional aspects of the holiday. Thus, this is day one of the 13 Days of Spooks, a countdown to the 31st. Today’s spooky topic: All Hallows Eve and the origins of Halloween.
Beginning in the first century, the Celts lived in present-day Ireland and northern France, and celebrated their new year on the first of November. Called Samhain (pronounced sow-een), the festival marked the end of summer, a time of harvest and rounding up of livestock, and the beginning of winter. Additionally, as it was an observance of the coming of a new year, the festival was held to honor the lives of those who had died within the year. The belief was that during Samhain, ghosts and other supernatural beings were allowed to mingle with the living before their journey to eternal rest; people sought to appease the spirits with sacrifices of animals and crops to Celtic deities, and lit bonfires to guide ghosts to the land of the dead.
Around 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had seized control of most Celtic territories, and over the course of its’ half century reign mixed Roman traditions with those of the Celts. The Romans observed two fall celebrations: Feralia, an October commemoration of the dead, and Pomona, an early November harvest festival honoring the goddess of the same name. Aspects of these festivals, including bobbing for apples, were added into Samhain’s repertoire of activities, which influence how we celebrate today.
It was during the mid sixth and seventh centuries that Samhain experienced drastic change. Early Christian missionaries, appalled by the pagan holiday, were instructed by Pope Gregory I in 601 to consecrate traditional worship ceremonies in the name of Christ, instead of completely doing away with native celebrations. Following this order, missionaries taught that the supernatural creatures of Celtic lore, specifically fairies and ghosts, were demonic and were sent to earth directly by the devil, and that catering to them would result in an eternity in Christian Hell. This change in perspective gave the holiday the sort of creepy air that we enjoy today.
Then in 609, Pope Boniface IV declared All Martyrs Day in March to honor Christian martyrs, which later Pope Gregor III moved to November 1st and renamed All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day. The church also added the November 2nd observance of All Souls Day in the year 1000 in a further attempt to completely replace Samhain with a church-sanctioned celebration of the dead. So by the eleventh century, two Catholic holidays were meant to end Samhain – instead of letting the tradition die, Celtic people celebrated All Hallows Eve, which perfectly coincided with the customary beginning of Samhain. Over time, All Hallows Eve became Hallows Eve, then Halloe’en, and finally Halloween.
More information about the origin of my favorite holiday can be found on the History Channel and American Folk Life Center websites. Tomorrow will follow with day two of our Halloween countdown, check it out if you dare.