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The Story of Halloween Halloween is a popular holiday all over the globe. But where did it come from? What are its ancient origins? In what ways was it pagan, religious, and now secular? Where did traditions like jack-o-lanterns, witches, and black cats come from?
Halloween - also called All-hallows, All-hallowmas, or All-Hallows Eve) - is a festival-like holiday celebrated on October 31st. The distant origins come from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, almost 2,000 years ago, largely in Britain and other parts of Europe. The night before November 1st (which had eventually become a Catholic holiday), the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.
It was believed that on the night of *Samhain the ghosts of the dead returned to earth, and some accounts say demons and fairies. This was because the growing season was over and the cold, dark winter was coming, reminding people of death.
*Pronounced [sah-win], it means "summer's end" in Gaelic.
Druids – Celtic priests – built large bonfires and wore costumes made of animal heads and skins.
They sacrificed animals and burned crops as offerings to Celtic deities. Costumes may have been used to confuse the spirits of the dead, perhaps for protection from possession, or to impersonate dead ancestors. The costumed Celts would walk from dwelling to dwelling seeking food and drink.
They begged for ‘soul cakes’ in villages in order to free the souls of dead relatives, which could have been a form of ancient trick-or-treating. People sometimes left food and drink outside of their doors for spirits, so this is also a possible explanation. People took embers from the bonfire home for protection.
Traditions from Rome, Italy
Sources say Pope Boniface IV established a Catholic feast called ‘All Martyrs Day’ on May 13th in the year 609 CE. He was permitted to dedicate the Pantheon in Rome to all Christian martyrs. It was later in the 8th century that Pope Gregory III changed the date to November 1st and expanded it to include Christian saints. Later known as 'All Saints' Day’ it was now a day to honour saints and martyrs. By the 9th century, Christianity had spread to Celtic regions and with it Catholic influence. In 1000 CE, the Church had declared November 2nd to be ‘All Soul’s Day’, most likely in an attempt to draw people to the Church’s festival and away from the Celtic festival of the dead. Over the centuries the customs became more ceremonial.
The modern form of ‘trick-or-treating’ originated in the United States, but the earliest form possibly came from the Celtic tradition of wandering from home to home asking for food and drink during Samhain. The closest ancient form of the practice probably came from ‘All Souls’ Day’ parades in England. The poor would walk from home to home begging for ‘soul cakes’. In return for the handout they would promise to pray for the souls of the donating family’s dead relatives.
Did you know... that mummering at Christmas probably has its roots in trick or treating?
The Catholic Church encouraged this as it was less associated with leaving food out for dead, roaming spirits. It was eventually called ‘going a-souling’ and was eventually practiced by children who walked around for free ale, food and sometimes money.