Do you celebrate Halloween? Or do you celebrate the “Day of the Dead” or “All Saints’ Day” by paying a visit to the cemetery to the graves of your beloved dead relatives? While in the USA and Ireland, Halloween is one of the jolliest festivities of the year, it is a time of silent remembrance in many countries of the Western world.
Halloween fun is spreading throughout the world. And let’s admit it: it is good business and that makes it spread even faster. Shopping for spooky costumes, trick-or-treating, parties, Halloween decorations and special foods make many pockets full.
But where does this holiday originate from and how did it become so loud and fun? This patchwork holiday mixes religious and occult traditions, blended into a truly modern lifestyle.
It is widely accepted that many Halloween traditions originate from ancient Celtic harvest festivals. Some folklorists, however, go back even further and have detected the origins of Halloween in the celebration of Pomona, Roman goddess of fruits and seeds. Giant feasts served to honour the goddess. The Roman festival of the dead, Parentalia also reminds some folklorists of Halloween. These festivals, however were at a completely different time of the year: Pomona’s feast was held in August and Parentalia, when families remembered their deceased, was in February.
It is widely believed that many Halloween traditions originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain, (meaning “summer’s end”) in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. A similar festival was held at the same time of year in Wales, Cornwall and other parts of Brittany.
Apart from marking the time of the last harvest of the year, the end of October is also half point between equinox and solstice, the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year,
This was the time of the Celtic New Year, and people thought of it as a time between years, when the border between our world and the Otherworld was the thinnest. A magical time when spirits and fairies walked the earth.
People believed that the souls of the dead came back to their old homes and wanted their relatives to welcome them. People left places for them by the dinner table and the fire. Offerings of food and drink were left outside for them.
The belief that the souls of the dead return home on one specific night of the year and must be treated nicely has been present since the ancient times in many cultures throughout the world.
The Catholic Church, naturally, was not a fan of Pagan traditions. The best way to overwrite old traditions was to introduce a similar Christian one at the same time. In the 7th century, the Vatican “mixed” Samhain with a godly holiday: All Saint’s Day (Allhallowtide, Hallowmas) and it became a time for honouring the saints and praying for the souls of the people who have died recently. Both festivals were about remembering the dead – this was a calculated move from the part of the Church.
Spread to the New World – modern day traditions
It was not until mass Irish and Scottish immigration in the 19th century at the time of the Potato Famine, that Halloween became an important holiday in North America. The Scottish and the Irish brought their traditions with them, and pranks (tricking the other people) became the most popular Halloween custom in the New World. Innocent pranks grew into hooliganism and vandalism – like stealing gates, for example. The young pranksters accepted treats (sweets and fruits, mostly) in exchange for not causing chaos around the visited house. The habit to give pranksters treats soon spread around shopkeepers and neighbours to avoid harm to their belongings. This is how the holiday greeting became “Trick or treat”.