Halloween’s Ancient History

Halloween is this Friday, and as you and your kids are out trick-or-treating, or you and your friends are out having some more grown-up Halloween fun, you might be wondering how all of these unique traditions originated.  All Halloween traditions, including trick-or-treating, bobbing for apples, and even the name and date of the holiday, all come from the ancient, pre-Christian Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween).
On the ancient Celtic calendar, the new year began November 1st, and the Samhain festival was like an ancient New Year’s Eve.  It was a festival to honor ancestors and celebrate the harvest and the beginning of a new year.  It was a time for the community to gather and bring in the harvest, bring in the animals to closer pastures, prepare for winter, and honor their ancestors.  Samhain was the most important holiday of the year for the Celts, and in some ways it was very much like Dia de los Muertos.  On this day, Celts believed that everyone who had died during the past year would be traveling to the otherworld, and so could mingle with the living for one night only.  Other spirits like fairies and demons were also believed to be more active on this night.
Samhain became more like the Halloween we are familiar with when Christian missionaries attempted to convert the Celtic people to Christianity.  The ancient Celtic gods and traditions were branded as “evil” by the Christian missionaries, in order to encourage conversion.  Instead of honoring the dead and other spirits, Celts were supposed to honor Christian saints.  That is why November 1st is now All Saints’ Day.  In reality, the new Christian traditions were added to, but did not completely replace, the ancient Celtic traditions.  That is why later, the Catholic Church added November 2nd as All Souls’ Day, in an attempt to Christianize the ancient Celtic practice of honoring their dead.
Virtually all modern Halloween traditions come from the ancient Celtic day of the dead.  Costumes and trick-or-treating originate in the practice of leaving food and drink out for the spirits of the dead, along with witches, fairies, and demons.  Over the centuries, people began dressing like these spirits and performing “tricks” in exchange for “treats.”  Other customs such as bobbing for apples and carving pumpkins come from the fact that it was a harvest festival, when these fruits and vegetables were harvested.
Halloween is the most ancient popular holiday and has a very interesting evolution and blend of traditions.  If you would like to learn more about it, check out scholar Jack Santino’s article for the Library of Congress American Folklife Center and this article on livescience.

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