Samhain, Allhallowtide, All Hallow’s Day, Day of Pomona, Feralia and Lemuria. What do all of these events have in common? They are the grandparents or grand-festivities of the modern-day Halloween.
Tonight, many of us will go out and binge on our favorite candies and festive foods and turn on the TV to watch marathons of scary movies or shows. Why do we do this, though? Sure, it’s fun and a great excuse to get a sugar high or get close with a significant other. However, just like many other modern holidays, the celebration of Halloween is nowhere close to its origins.
Originally, Halloween stems from the ancient Celtic, specifically Gaelic festival of Samhain some 2000 years ago (give or take a century), where the Celts brought in the new year on November 1. This marked the end of summer and harvest and the beginning of the cold, harsh winter. The darker part of the year. They believed that during the night between the years, the lines between the worlds of the living and dead blurred. Ghosts could roam during the day and at night should return to the earth.
So, when evening came they celebrated Samhain by lighting bonfires and wearing costumes to ward off ghosts. The occurrence of this supernatural event was also revered that the Druids, Celtic priests, could use the spiritual activity to make predictions about the future. People would burn crops and perform animal sacrifices during the bonfires, donning animal heads and skins while attempting to tell fortunes.
Photo by Thomas Kelly
How does this festival with overtones of connections between the living and dead, and rituals centered on foretelling transform into one of candy, parties, and tricks? Let’s look to a powerful, integrating agent in Western history: Enter the Roman Empire and the early Christian church. A successful strategy of the Roman Empire was assimilating religions of conquered states into the empire. Similarly, with the spread of Christianity, Christian dogma and practices transubstantiated pagan rituals into Christian rites. The Celtic territory was no different.
After conquering the regions known today as Scotland and Ireland in 43 A.D., Samhain was combined with the Roman festival of Feralia that commemorated the dead in late October, and day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits and trees. For a moment, I would like to pause here and note how all these traditions share an intent for honoring the dead and highlight a relationship between the dead and the living. This is suitable during a season where everything dies and “winter is coming.”
As the years progressed, the festival of Samhain grew more convoluted. Speed up to 609 A.D., Pope Gregory III moved All Martyrs’ Day to November 1st, which becomes All Saints’ Day. The night before known as All Hallows' Eve included traditions of Samhain like carving jack-o-lanterns, festive gatherings, and eating sweet treats. Fast forward to the 9th century A.D. All Souls’ Day on November 2nd honored the dead and is celebrated in a similar fashion to Samhain. We find the Western Christian church celebrating the feast of All Hallows' Day, also All Saints' Day, reflecting Middle English etymology from “Alholowmesse.” This festival day initiated the three-day observance of Allhallowtide.
Photo by Eddie Howell
The primal festival Samhain fell further from its roots as we land in 19th century America in strict Protestantism. The time frame of Samhain lined up with harvest festivals. It was common in Maryland and southern states to have “play parties.” At these parties they celebrated the harvest time, sharing stories of the dead, predicting fortune, and singing and dancing. Ghost stories found their way in later.
Move to the latter half of the 19th century, an influx of Irish immigrants during the potato famine popularize Halloween. These Halloween celebrations found structure around communities. Americans went from house to house asking for food or money, threw parties, removed frightening features such as pranks and ghost stories, prepared seasonal food, and dressed in costume. Come the 20th century, all ancient religious and superstitious overtones are gone, making the celebration entirely secular.
Now, you will probably not take any of this to heart as you put on your costumes and face paint, but it is an interesting back story to every party going on Halloween; and a splendid source of wonder for what Halloween will be like in another 2000 years.