“An All-Hallows History”

Posted on October 11, 2011 by


By Joseph Nawn

A little over 2,000 years ago, the origin of the holiday we all know and love, otherwise known as Halloween came into recorded history. In the lands of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France the Celtic people would celebrate their new year on November 1. On the eve of their new year, they celebrated Samhain to mark the end of summer and the harvest. For the Celts, Winter was a season associated with death and Samhain was a celebratory, religious festival for the people to enjoy before the long cold months ahead.

During Samhain, the Celts believed that the door between the spirit world and human world was open and that both good and bad spirits were roaming the earth causing havoc. In addition to these spirits being amongst them, they also thought that it made it easier for the Celtic priests, known as Druids, to predict the future.

To commemorate Samhain the Druids built two huge sacred bonfires and burned crops and livestock as sacrifices to their Celtic deities. The people would dress in costumes made of animal skulls and hide and walk between the two fires as part of a cleansing ritual. When Samhain was over they took embers from the sacred fires and put them into hollowed out turnips. They would then place them into their own hearths as a way of blessing the home before the winter months. Many historians believe this to be the origin of the Jack-O-Lantern.

By the 800’s Christianity had spread throughout the Celtic lands but the old Pagan ways had not yet been extinguished. In the late 600’s Pope Boniface IV made November 1 All Saints Day as way of honoring all of the past Saints and martyrs. At this time however, Middle English was being spoken and the day was called All-hallows or All-Hallowmas (short for Alholowmesse). As a result, the night of Samhain became All-hallows Eve which would eventually come to be called Halloween.

Later, when Europeans began to immigrate to America, they brought some of their Halloween traditions with them. Here Americans first introduced what were called play parties. Play parties consisted mostly of dancing, singing, fortune telling, and ghost stories and became an integral part of the Halloween festivities in Colonial America. Over the centuries new immigrants would come to the United States and bring their Halloween traditions with them as well and eventually Halloween evolved into the Holiday we know today.

Going back across the Atlantic to England we see the emergence of yet another Halloween tradition, Trick-or-Treating. It is generally accepted by most historians that the idea of trick-or-treating actually comes from an old English tradition done on All Soul’s Day (November 2). On this day families would bake pastries called “soul cakes” and when a beggar came to them asking for food the family would only give them a soul cake if the beggar promised to pray for the families dead relatives. The church thought this would be a good replacement for the old tradition of leaving food and wine outside for wandering spirits.

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