Although Halloween’s origins are relatively mysterious,
looking into the past can reveal a lot about our modern understanding of what this
day of costumes and celebration truly signifies.
About 2,000 years ago, a popular Celtic holiday called Samhain (sow-in) signified the end of summer and the beginning of winter. This holiday fell on November 1st and signified a new year for people in Ireland, the UK, and Northern France. Since winter was often associated with death in those days, the Celts believed that on their new year’s eve, October 31st, the lines between the living and the dead became blurred and the dead could walk among them. Superstition gave birth to traditions such as bonfires (to ward off evil) and disguises (to hide from spirits), practices we still undertake today.
Later on, the Romans conquered much Celtic territory and combined their own festivals with existing traditions, including Samhain. The first, Feralia, took place in late October as a way to commemorate Roman ancestors. Another was a feast day for Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. Because her symbol was the apple, this festival may possibly be the origin of “bobbing for apples.”
Finally in the 700s, Pope Gregory moved All Saints’ Day from May to November in an effort to replace Samhain completely. In Middle English, the All Saints’ Day was called All-Hallows or All-Hallowmas. Thus the night of Samhain became known as All-Hallows Eve and then eventually Halloween.
Day of the Dead
Outside of North America, Halloween is most popular in Mexico, Latin America and Spain, where it is called Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. This three-day celebration, beginning October 31st, centers around the belief the dead can return to their earthly homes on Halloween. To celebrate, many families will create altars for the dead and candles and incense are burned to help the deceased find their way home.
Halloween and Hope
Thanks to medical advances and ever-growing life expectancy, we sometimes forget how much of a role death played in the everyday lives and customs of past generations. Initially, Halloween revolved around the mocking of death and the belief that our friends and family would find a way to be with us still after we lost them. The idea of death was less frightening when people believed they could find a way to come back home once a year to see their loved ones, and they knew that despite the fact that they had lost someone, that person would always come back to them. Halloween, in a sense, was really a holiday of hope.
So while you go off trick-or-treating this Halloween, know that you’re celebrating part of a rich holiday tradition that dates back over 2,000 years!