For many of us, Halloween represents a time for little kids to dress up as their favorite character and go house to house searching for the best candy. Did you know that Halloween was not always so kid-friendly? This holiday was founded on fear and superstition that plagued an entire civilization for centuries before it turned into a kid-favorite.
October 31 falls right between the fall and spring equinoxes. For Medieval Celtics, this signified the change into darkest and coldest part of the year. This was very threatening to the Celtic farmers as this new season often took much of their crops as well as their loved ones. On the evening of October 31, where the season of life meets the season of death, it was believed that evil spirits were able to roam the Earth. In order to protect themselves against the supernatural, the Celtic people created a festival on this night called Samhain literally translated means “Summers end.” As the sun set, a giant sacred bonfire was lit where many animal and crop sacrifices were made to please their Gods. The village people danced around the fire in costumes of animal skins and heads so the malevolent spirits would be confused and discouraged. The presence of these rare spirits gave a sense of prescience to the village people. Those celebrating by the bonfire would try to predict each other’s fortunes while the sacred druid priests would predict if the village would be able to survive through the winter.
These traditions continued even as the Roman Empire gained control of the Celtic land. These ancient pagan traditions were threatening to theirs so the Church created celebrations to sway these people. Pope Boniface IV created All Martyrs Day to celebrate all Christian martyrs in May 13, 609. Pope Greg III transformed this holiday by extending it to honor all of the saints and fittingly named this holiday All Saints Day or All Hallows Day. He then moved the celebration to November 1 to replace the Samhain tradition. The Europeans instead practiced both of these traditions. Samhain became known as “All-Hallows Eve” and eventually “Halloween.”
Despite the popularity in Europe, Halloween did not immediately take off in America. The Puritans of New England did not take a liking to this heathen tradition. In the southern colonies, the first celebrations included a mix of American and Native American traditions including harvest celebration, ghost stories, and fortune predictions with song and dance. The holiday really picked up in America during the 19th century when the Irish potato famine drove the Irish across the Atlantic along with their traditions. Many of these traditions were largely connected to those described in the Medieval era, and still are practiced today! The sacred bonfires were represented as jack-o-lanterns people enjoyed carving and displaying outside of their homes. The demonic disguises were costumes that depicted angels, devils, and everything in between. These changes through the years signified a change in the original religious ties to the celebration.
The holiday became a celebration for fun rather than superstition. These changes even continued through the late 1800’s where newsletters were published to push for the holiday to be more community-oriented. After this, the most popular form of the celebration were large parties for children and adults. These parties did not concentrate on ghost stories but instead the costumes everyone wore. By the early 20th century Halloween had become an American tradition and now it is the second largest commercial holiday we celebrate! Who would have known?
Share the spooky origins of the holiday and have a safe Halloween everyone!