What do we think of when we say Halloween? Spooky decorations, kids in costumes trick or treating for candy, jack-o-lanterns, some funny and maybe not so funny pranks to name a few. But did you know the history of Halloween ties back to the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain?
What is Samhain?
Samhain is a three day ancient Celtic festival that marked the end of summer and kicked off the Celtic new year. This time of year was symbolic of death and rebirth. The symbolism of death and rebirth is intensified as it marked the end of the harvest season. What followed is the beginning of the cold and darker winter season, which presented many challenges. Our knowledge of Samhain is limited; what we do know requires an understanding of how their calendar impacted the Celtic religious practices.
Understanding the Calendar
The Celtic year was split into two halves: light and dark. These halves were marked by two of the four fire festivals. Rituals and ceremonies sit in between the festivals marking the solstices and equinoxes. Samhain was the fire festival that marked the beginning of the dark half of the year; it occurred in between the autumn equinox (Mabon) and the winter solstice (Yule.)
Samhain: When the Planes are Blurred
While this festival was taking place it was believed that the “world of the gods” was visible to us here on earth. Ghosts and spirits from the Otherworld were believed to return during Samhain. In order to appease them, sacrifices were burned in bonfires; this acted as a protection against evil beings. Offerings were left for other more mischievous spirits. Tricks were common and were blamed on fairies and mischievous spirits. There was also fortune telling as it was believed that the presence of those spirits made it easier to make predictions about the future. One other thing that was common was people donning costumes as animals or other beasts in order to try fooling spirits that may want to harm them!
Christianity Changes Things
May 13th of the year 609, Pope Boniface IV (top left) declared the celebration of All Saints Day; a celebration of Christian martyrs and saints. Later, Pope Gregory III (bottom left) moved the celebration to November 1st, which coincided with the time that Samhain was celebrated. The celebration of All Saints Day paralleled with the appeasement of the ghosts during Samhain. As a result, many of the Celtic traditions were reframed to fit Christianity, furthering the spread of the religion. This is the same way Christianity spread in the new world when similar changes were made to the Aztec celebration of the dead that became what we now know as Dia de los Muertos.
The day before All Saints Day became known as All Hallows Eve, and eventually, Halloween. Now many of the traditions that we identify with Halloween originated with this Celtic celebration. So when you dress up in costume and hand out treats, or get someone with a Halloween prank, you are enjoying pieces of the celebration of Samhain.