History of Halloween: A 2,000-year-old Pagan Ritual
Ever wondered what Halloween is all about and the reason for its celebration?
Many people think Halloween is just a day when people dress up in costumes and have fun. But it has a deeper historical meaning.
Like every other festival, the history of Halloween has survived through a civilization that has emerged from one generation to another.
Knowing the history of Halloween helps us to understand not just the fantasies but the facts. It will also help those who want to wash off the superficial hues so they can understand the celebration.
Observed by: Western Christians and many non-Christians around the world
Celebration Date: 31st October
What is Halloween all about?
The name “Halloween” is derived from All Hallows’ Eve, also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve (hallows).
The present English term Halloween has traces to medieval Christianity. “Hallow” is another word for “Holy” in Old and Middle English. It can also mean saint if used as a noun.
The Christian holiday we all know as “All Saints’ Day” today, in those days, was referred to as “All Hallows’ Day,” and the day before, when an evening mass was held, was called “Hallows Eve.” Eventually, the three-word name got shortened to “Halloween.”
The history of Halloween dates back to a pagan festival called Samhain. It is a celebration observed in many countries on October 31, the eve of the Western Christian holiday of All Saints’ Day. This corresponds to the second night of a festival called Samhain, which dates back to the pagans in Ireland.
Hundreds of years ago, people dressed up as saints and went door-to-door, which is the origin of Halloween costumes and trick-or-treating.
Why Do We Celebrate Halloween on October 31st?
The old Gaelic festival of Samhain is a 2,000-year-old festival, which took place on the first of November but started the evening before (i.e., on the 31st of October), is regarded as the earliest root of some present-day Halloween traditions and Wiccans still celebrate it today.
It is an important time of the year when seasons change, but more importantly, people who follow events closely believe that the boundary between our world and the next becomes thin, making them easily connect with their deceased.
The history of the Christian Halloween date of the 31st of October is a little bit complicated. In the wake of the 5th century, Pope Boniface IV started All Saints Day when he dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to the saints, but it was on the 13th of May.
In the 9th century, All Saints Day was added to the Christian calendar by Pope Gregory IV, extending the celebration from Rome to other churches worldwide. All Hallows’ Eve on the 31st of October and All Saints Day on the 1st of November is part of the same celebration. All Souls’ Day would follow on November 2nd. This might be an effort to cancel out a pagan festival with a religious celebration.
As time passed, Christianity took over, causing the pagan activities and celebration of the holiday to lessen. Nevertheless, the primary traditions of the holiday remained a part of popular culture yearly.
Early Traditions of Halloween
Celebrants believed that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world are broken down during Samhain, allowing for more interaction between humans and the netherworld.
The ghosts that roamed the Earth were thought to help predict the future, so the Celts welcomed them with sacrificial fires and by dressing in costumes of animal heads and skins.
Many ritualistic ceremonies to connect to spirits were part of the early pagan festival of Samhain, as the Celts were known to be polytheistic. Although there aren’t a lot of details about these celebrations, many people believe that the Celts celebrated in costumes (animal hides) as a disguise against ghosts. They also enjoyed special feasts and made lanterns out of gourds by hollowing them (the root of jack-o’-lanterns).
Another popular ritual practised on the eve of Halloween was mirror gazing. People gazed into the mirror, hoping to catch visions of their future. Messages were written on pieces of paper and placed inside walnut shells that contained milk. These shells were heated over a fire making the milk turn brown, which causes the message on the piece of paper to mystically appear on the recipient’s paper.
The mystical rituals practised in ancient times evolved into more straightforward, fun activities. For example, the event of connecting to the dead evolved into the telling of the future. Bobbing for apples, for example, grew into a fortune-telling game on the eve of Halloween.
The ancient Celts marked Samhain as the most important of the four quarterly fire festivals, which take place midway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. During this time of year, the bonfires in the families’ homes were allowed to go out while the harvest was harvested.
Once the harvest work was complete, the celebrants joined the Druid priests in lighting a communal fire using a wheel that would cause friction and ignite flames. The wheel was considered a representation of the sun and was used in conjunction with prayers. The cattle were slaughtered and the participants carried a flame from the communal bonfire to their home to relight the hearth.
Early texts present Samhain as an obligatory celebration lasting three days and three nights in which the community was required to show themselves to local kings or chieftains. Failure to participate was believed to result in punishment from the gods, usually illness or death.
There was also a military aspect to Samhain in Ireland, with festive thrones prepared for commanders of soldiers. Anyone who committed a crime or used their weapons during the celebration faced the death penalty.
Some documents mention six days of heavy drinking, typically mead or beer, along with gluttonous feasting.
The Monsters of Samhain
Because the Celts believed that the barrier between the worlds could be broken during Samhain, they prepared offerings that were left outside the villages and fields for the fairies or Sídh.
It was hoped that the ancestors would also be able to cross over during this time, and the Celts would dress as animals and monsters so that the fairies would not be tempted to kidnap them.
Some specific monsters became associated with the mythology surrounding Samhain, including a shape-shifting creature called the Pukah that receives harvest offerings from the field. Lady Gwyn is a headless woman dressed in white who chases after night wanderers and was accompanied by a black pig.
The Dullahan sometimes appeared as mischievous creatures, sometimes as headless men on horseback carrying their heads. Riding fiery-eyed horses, their appearance was an omen of death to anyone who encountered them.
A group of hunters known as the Faery Host could also hunt down Samhain and kidnap people. Similar are the Sluagh, who would come from the west to enter houses and steal souls.
The Myths of Samhain
One of the most popular Samhain stories told during the festival was “The Second Battle of Mag Tuired“, which portrays the final conflict between the Celtic pantheon known as the Tuatha de Danann and the evil oppressors known as the Fomor. The myths state that the battle took place during the Samhain period.
One of the most famous stories related to Samhain is “The Adventures of Nera“, in which the hero Nera comes across a corpse and fairies, and enters the Otherworld.
Samhain participated in the adventures of the Celtic mythological hero Fionn mac Cumhaill when he faced the fire-breathing denizen of the underworld Aillen, who would burn down the Hall of Tara every Samhain.
Samhain also figures in another Fionn mac Cumhaill legend, where the hero is sent to Earth beneath the wave. As well as taking place on Samhain, it features descriptions of the hero’s Christmas gatherings.
Samhain in The Middle Ages
As the Middle Ages progressed, so did the fire festival celebrations. Bonfires known as Samghnagans, which were more personal Samhain fires near farms, became a tradition, supposedly to protect families from fairies and witches.
Carved turnips called Jack-o-lanterns began to appear, tied with string to sticks and embedded with charcoal. Later, the Irish tradition changed to pumpkins.
In Wales, men threw burning wood at each other in violent games and set off fireworks. In the north of England, men paraded with noisemakers.
The “silent dinner” tradition, sometimes known as “silly dinner” began during this time, in which the celebrants would consume the food, but only after inviting the ancestors to join in, allowing families to interact with the spirits until they left after dinner.
The children would play games to entertain the dead, while the adults would update the dead on the news of the past year. That night, the doors and windows could be left open for the dead to enter and eat the cakes that had been left for them.
Samhain meets Halloween
No new festival eliminated the pagan aspects of the celebration. October 31 became known as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, and contained many of the traditional pagan practices before being adopted in 19th-century America by Irish immigrants who brought their traditions across the ocean.
But Ireland’s devastating potato famine that began in 1845 sparked mass immigration: more than 1.5 million Irish people fled to the United States during that time. With them, they brought their long-standing Halloween traditions, and the upcoming holiday quickly became popular and spread across the country.
When Irish immigrants came to America, they quickly discovered that Jack O’Lanterns were much easier to forge and began using them. This truly ordered tradition quickly spread to the general population in America and elsewhere.
Trick-or-treating is said to derive from ancient Irish and Scottish practices on the nights before Samhain. In Ireland, the mummy was the practice of donning costumes, going from door to door, and singing songs to the dead. Cakes were given as payment.
Halloween pranks also have a tradition at Samhain, although in the ancient celebration, tricks used to be attributed to fairies.
Wicca and Samhain
A broad revival of the festival of Samhain resembling its traditional pagan form began in the 1980s with the growing popularity of Wicca.
The Wiccan celebration of Samhain takes many forms, from traditional fire ceremonies to celebrations that encompass many aspects of modern Halloween, as well as activities related to honouring nature or the ancestors.
Wiccans view Samhain as the passing of the year and incorporate common Wiccan traditions into the celebration.
In the Druid tradition, Samhain celebrates the dead with a festival on October 31 which usually features a bonfire and communion with the dead. American pagans often hold music and dance celebrations called Witch Balls in the vicinity of Samhain.
Pagans who embrace Celtic traditions intending to faithfully reintroduce them into modern paganism are called Celtic Reconstructionists.
In this tradition, Samhain is called Oiche Shamnhna and celebrates the mating between the Tuatha de Danaan Dagda gods and the river Unis. Celtic Reconstructionists celebrate by placing juniper decorations around their homes and creating an altar for the dead where a feast is held in honour of deceased loved ones.
Popular Traditions of Halloween
The following are some of the most popular surviving traditions of Halloween.
Trick-or-treating- According to a theory, during the Samhain, the Celtics would leave out food to appease the ghosts and spirits that are moving around that night. This evolved into people dressing like these supernatural beings to exchange food and drinks.
Today’s trick-or-treating is a confluence of several traditions.
Ancient Celts disguised themselves as evil spirits to confuse demons, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
In medieval England, “soulers” were begging rich people for “soul cakes” on Halloween. However, instead of threatening to play tricks on them, they would pray for people’s souls in exchange for the cake, according to “The Compleat Teacher’s Almanack.”
As time went on, beggars walked from door to door asking for “soul cakes” from the wealthy, offering to pray for their dead relatives in return. But instead of saying “trick or treat,” they said, “A soul cake, a soul cake, have mercy on all the Christian souls for a soul cake!”
TIME reported that Irish and Scottish immigrants brought “souling” to the United States in the 19th century. But today’s trick-or-treating didn’t become popular in the US until the 1920s.
However, the practice was quite controversial in the 1950s. According to the American Journal of Play’s “Gangsters, Pranksters, and the Invention of Trick-or-Treating,” many adults raised “severe objections” to trick-or-treating throughout decades, as it was often seen as a form of extortion.
Making jack-o’-lanterns– Originated from Ireland, based on a man named Stingy Jack who made a pact with the Devil to never let him go to Hell. But when he died, he eventually found out that he couldn’t go to heaven either. He was given a lump of burning coal made from a turnip to light his way while he roams the earth as a ghost forever. People eventually began to carve scary faces into their gourds to chase away ghosts.
If you ever meet the devil on a dark road, don’t try to trick him into climbing a tree. Otherwise, you could end up like Irish folk figure Jack O’Lantern.
Today’s pumpkin creations are done with intricate designs that certainly create impressive decorations. But back in the day, people in Ireland nicknamed their carved burning turnips “lanterns” thanks in part to an ominous legend.
One night, a scheming local drunk named Jack trapped the Prince of Darkness in a tree by cutting a sign of the cross into the bark. In exchange for letting Satan down, Jack made him promise never to claim his soul.
Jack proceeded to act like a jerk all his life. When he died, he was not allowed to enter heaven. So he tried to get back to his old friend, the Devil. But Satan kept his end of the bargain, throwing a lump of coal from hell at the dead man for good measure.
With nowhere to go, Jack placed the burning coal on a turnip to use as a lantern. The dead man set out, condemned to wander until he found a place of eternal rest.
Lighting bonfires- In early Halloween history, open fires were significant in lighting the path of souls who were seeking the afterlife. Candles are used these days instead of traditional bonfires.
Also known as bobbing for apples, apple ducking, duck-apple, dooking or “Snap Apple Night“.
Apple bobbing- This tradition helped young men and women to know their future spouses. The apples represent all the suitors of a woman, and the apple (guy) she ends up biting represents her future husband. In the 19th century, Halloween presented a huge match-making opportunity for young women.
Apple bobbing dates back to an ancient Roman festival called “Pomona“.
When the Roman Empire overtook the Celts around 43 AD, they combined their traditions with those of Samhain.
The second day of the new year festivities was “Pomona“, which was meant to honour the eponymous goddess of fruits and trees, which explains the bobbing of (and consumption of) apples at this time of year.
During the 18th century, “wiggling” increased in popularity in the British Empire and was another way of flirting with a potential partner. Despite a brief decline in popularity, the Irish revived the game when they immigrated to the United States.
Celtic People believed that spirits moved around the earth during the Samhain festival. Around the same time of the year, Christian missionaries later introduced All Souls Day, which preserved the idea of the relationship between the living and the dead.
Owls are also creatures associated with Halloween: in medieval times, hearing a single beep meant that death was near. For medieval Europeans, seeing an owl meant that danger, even death, was approaching. Because the birds are active at night, they were thought to engage in illicit activities and were often depicted with or as witches.
Origin of Halloween costumes
The pagan festival and All Saints day led to a combination of rituals and customs, which involved putting on costumes of witches and ghosts, wearing ornaments to represent spirits, tricks or treats, etc.
They all evolved with the sombre event in the Christian calendar. Some rituals performed were sacrifices to pagan gods before the pagans became Christians. All Saints Day and Halloween involve honouring the dead, only using different methods. This is probably why ghost costumes and tombstones are being used for Halloween.
How did Halloween become popular in the United States?
European immigrants to the United States in the 19th century brought Halloween costumes with them and helped popularize the holiday. By the 20th century, Halloween had become one of the principal holidays in the United States, especially among children.
Where is Halloween Celebrated?
Halloween is largely celebrated in the United States. But it is also celebrated in countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, France, and Ireland.
Thanks to the popularity of television shows, the festivities of Halloween are rapidly growing in the rest of Europe and some other countries around the world.
Foods Associated With Halloween
Barmbrack (Ireland), Bonfire toffee (Great Britain), Candy apples/toffee apples (Great Britain and Ireland), Candy apples, candy corn, candy pumpkins (North America), Chocolate, Monkey nuts (peanuts in their shells) (Ireland and Scotland), Caramel apples, Caramel corn, Colcannon (Ireland), Halloween cake, Sweets/candy, Novelty candy shaped like skulls, pumpkins, bats, worms, etc. Roasted pumpkin seeds, Roasted sweet corn, Soul cakes, Pumpkin Pie.