Although Halloween’s origins are relatively mysterious,looking into the past can reveal a lot about our modern understanding of what thisday of costumes and celebration truly signifies.
About 2,000 years ago, a popular Celtic holiday called Samhain (sow-in) signified the end ofsummer and the beginning of winter. This holiday fell on November 1stand signified a new year for people in Ireland, the UK, and Northern France. Sincewinter was often associated with death in those days, the Celts believed thaton their new year’s eve, October 31st, the lines between the living and thedead became blurred and the dead could walk among them. Superstition gave birthto traditions such as bonfires (to ward off evil) and disguises (to hide fromspirits), practices we still undertake today.
Later on, the Romans conquered much Celtic territory andcombined their own festivals with existing traditions, including Samhain. The first, Feralia, took placein late October as a way to commemorate Roman ancestors. Another was a feastday for Pomona, the goddess of fruitand trees. Because her symbol was the apple, this festival may possibly be theorigin 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-Hallowsor 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 inMexico, Latin America and Spain, where it is called Dia de los Muertos, or the Dayof the Dead. This three-day celebration, beginning October 31st,centers around the belief the dead can return to their earthly homes onHalloween. To celebrate, many families will create altars for the dead andcandles and incense are burned to help the deceased find their way home.
Halloween and Hope
Thanks to medical advancesand ever-growing life expectancy, we sometimes forget how much of a role deathplayed in the everyday lives and customs of past generations. Initially,Halloween revolved around the mocking of death and the belief that our friendsand family would find a way to be with us still after we lost them. The idea ofdeath was less frightening when people believed they could find a way to comeback home once a year to see their loved ones, and they knew that despite thefact 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 offtrick-or-treating this Halloween, know that you’re celebrating part of a rich holidaytradition that dates back over 2,000 years!