The Celtic peoples, were early domesticators of the horse and in the distant past they spread out from the steppes and across much of Europe. They lived in what is now eastern Europe, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, Belgium, northern Spain, England, parts of Scotland and Ireland.
The Celts divided their year into eight major holidays and two seasons of light and dark. The season of light began at Beltane on May 1st and the season of darkness began with Samhain on November 1st. The word Samhain literally translates, from ancient Gaelic as “summers end” and in contemporary Irish Samhain is the name for the month of November.
According to their calendar, their year began on the day corresponding to November 1st on our present calendar. Since they were a pastoral people, it was the time when cattle and sheep had to be moved to closer pastures and crops were harvested and stored. It marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death.
Now, the Celts are believed to have measured time by nights rather than by days, as we do today. Traditionally the festival of Samhain began at sundown. The Celts believed that on the night before their new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. More so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld. People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables. They also lit bonfires in honor of the dead, to aid them on their journey, and to keep them away from the living. On that day all manner of beings were abroad: ghosts, fairies, and demons–all part of the dark and dread.
Samhain was a time that a family’s ancestors were honored and invited home whilst harmful spirits were warded off. It is believed that the need to ward off harmful spirits led to the wearing of costumes and masks to protect one from being recognized by unfriendly spirits. And, since malevolent spirits roamed abroad on Samhain night, gifts and treats were left out to pacify them and ensure next years crops would be plentiful. These are customs that are the foundation of
today’s costume parties and what evolved into today’s trick-or-treating.
Hill top bonfires also played a large part in Celtic festivities. On Samhain, all household fires were extinguished and at the end of the ceremonies, brands were lit from the great bonfires of to re-kindle all the home fires of the tribe. As they received the flame that marked this time of beginnings, the ancient Celts surely had a sense of they were kindling new dreams, projects and hopes for the year to come.
By 43 BCE, the Romans had conquered nearly all of the Celtic lands. The Romans, although conquerors, were surprisingly accepting of the beliefs of other cultures. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled, two Roman festivals became combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.
The first was Feralia, also celebrated in late October, when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple. Apples were also a special fruit to the Celts. At the heart of the Celtic Otherworld grew an apple tree whose fruit had magical properties. These festivals were blended with Samhain and the apple became part of the “Halloween” celebration that would become Halloween in the form of “bobbing” for apples.
Samhain began evolving into the Halloween we are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to change the religious practices of the Celtic people. As a result of their efforts to wipe out “pagan” holidays, such as Samhain, the Christians succeeded in effecting major transformations in it. In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples’ customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship.
In terms of spreading Christianity, this was a brilliant concept and it became a basic approach used in Catholic missionary work. Church holy days were purposely set to coincide with native holy days. Christmas, for instance, was assigned the arbitrary date of December 25th because it corresponded with the mid-winter celebration of many peoples. Likewise, St. John’s Day was set on the summer solstice. While missionaries identified their holy days with those observed by the Celts, they branded the earlier religion’s supernatural deities as evil, and associated them with the devil. The Celtic underworld inevitably became identified with the Christian Hell.
The old beliefs associated with Samhain never died out entirely. All Saints Day, otherwise known as All Hallows (hallowed means sanctified or holy), continued the ancient Celtic traditions. The powerful symbolism of the traveling dead was too strong, and perhaps too basic to the human psyche, to be satisfied with the abstract Catholic feast honoring saints. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought to be evil. The folk continued to propitiate those spirits (and their masked impersonators) by setting out gifts of food and drink. Subsequently, All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening, which became Hallowe’en–an ancient Celtic, pre-Christian New Year’s Day in contemporary dress. The practice of retaining traditional customs while attempting to redefine them had a sustaining effect: the traditional beliefs and customs lived on, in new guises.
However, it was in Colonial America that these old historical traditions merged and a distinctly American version of Halloween emerged. Colonial Halloween festivities featured the telling of ghost stories and mischief-making of all kinds. By the early 19th century, annual autumn festivities were common, but Halloween wasn’t celebrated everywhere in the country.
In the second half of the 19th century, America was flooded with new immigrants, millions of Irish fleeing Ireland’s potato famine. These irish helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally. Today, children and many adults dress up in various different costumes, some inspired by the latest films, characters from fantasy stories, and other areas of popular culture. The whole notion of trick-or-treat came from Ireland.
The custom of going door-to-door threatening to play pranks if treats are not received came from Ireland of the 18th and 19th centuries when the children of tenant farmers would go to the Lords or Landlords manor demanding treats or they would play pranks. The children would carry with them jack-o’lanterns which were made by hollowing out a turnip or sugar beet and carving bits out to represent facial features and would then be lit from a candle placed in the inside. The idea behind this may have been to frighten off any supernatural forces that might be about on this night.
The carving of pumpkins is associated with Halloween in North America where pumpkins are both readily available and much larger- making them easier to carve than turnips. Using pumpkins is an American contribution to celebrating Halloween.
By the turn of the century, Halloween parties for both children and adults became the most common way to celebrate the day. Parties focused on games, foods of the season, and festive costumes.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Halloween had become a secular, but community-centered holiday, with parades and town-wide parties as the featured entertainment. Between 1920 and 1950, the centuries-old practice of trick-or-treating was revived. Trick-or-treating was a relatively inexpensive way for an entire community to share the Halloween celebration. In theory, families could also prevent tricks being played on them by providing the neighborhood children with small treats. A new American tradition was born, and it has continued to grow. Today, Americans spend an estimated $7 billion annually on Halloween, making it the country’s second largest commercial holiday.
But, Halloween is no stranger to controversy even in the twenty-first century, it has always been targeted by those who wish to control it, from the early Catholic church to the various political and religious groups of today. Yet, Halloween has managed to achieve national status without the holiday status of the July 4th or Christmas, because it’s a celebration of the potential of what humans want to be and, if only for one night, what they would not otherwise be.
Halloween endures because it allows its participants to both embrace and defuse their fears. From the ancient Celts who looked to the spirits that wandered Samhain night for insight to the future to the little vampires and fairies trick-or-treating at your door, Halloween’s adaptability is the reason it remains—after nearly 2000 years—the most bewitching night of the year.
Of course, whether we’re trick or treating, bobbing for apples, or dressing in costumes, each one of these Halloween traditions relies on the good will of the very same “spirits” whose presence the early Celts felt so keenly. Ours is not such a different holiday after all!
Dahlstrom Day of the Dead
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
Have a Happy Halloween.
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Santa Ynez, CA 93460
Dr. Eric P. Dahlstrom, D.C., L.Ac.
Santa Monica Healing Arts
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