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 deceased 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, however, is contagious and it’s spreading throughout the world. And let’s admit it: the fact that it is good business makes it spread even faster. The shopping frenzy 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 jolly? This patchwork holiday mixes religious and occult traditions which are now blended into a truly modern lifestyle.
It is a widely accepted notion that many Halloween traditions originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals. Some folklorists, however, go back even further and have detected the origins of Halloween in the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and seeds, and/or in the festival of the dead called Parentalia. Although some traditions of these festivities probably lived on after the fall of the empire, 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 was considered a time between years, when the veil between our world and the Otherworld was the thinnest. A magical time when spirits and fairies walked the earth.
The souls of the dead were said to revisit their old homes at this time, seeking hospitality. People left places for them by the dinner table and the fire. Offerings of food and drink, or harvested crops 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 appeased has been present since the ancient times in many cultures throughout the world.
The Catholic Church frowned upon Pagan traditions. The best way, however, to overwrite old traditions was to merge them with Christian ones. In the 7th century, the Vatican merged Samhain with a church-approved holiday: All Saint’s Day (Allhallowtide, Hallowmas) and it became a time for honouring the saints and praying for souls recently departed. 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 imprtant holiday in North America. The Scottish and the Irish brought their traditions with them, and pranks became the most popular Halloween custom in the New World. Innocent pranks grew into outright hooliganism and vandalism – like stealing gates, for example. The young pranksters accepted treats in exchange for leaving the visited house unharmed. The habit to bribe pranksters with treats soon spread around shopkeepers and neighbours. This is how the holiday greeting became “Trick or treat”.