The celebration of the festival of Halloween is a merchandiser's delight. Time Magazine once estimated that it is a $2.4 billion dollar event. 50% of Americans will decorate for Halloween, in comparison to 80% who decorate for Christmas. It is allegedly the third most popular party activity, after the Superbowl and New Year's Eve.
In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic festival of Samhain was observed on October 31, the end of summer. In Cornwall it was known as Allantide, of apple time; in Ireland it was also known as Geimredh1. November 1st was the new year for both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon calendars and the date was connected with the return of herds from pasture and the renewal of laws and land tenures. It was one of the most important calendar festivals of the Celtic Year.
The ancient Druids were the learned priestly class of the Celtic religion. Many of their beliefs and practices were similar to those of certain sects of Hinduism, such as reincarnation, and the transmigration of the soul, which teaches that people may be reborn as animals2 . They worshipped the Lord of the Dead on a holiday called Samhain, which occurred on October 31. According to Julius Caesar3 and other sources, the Celts believed they were descended from the god Dis, the Roman name for the god of the dead. (Much of what is known of this ancient culture comes from the records of the Romans.)
Human sacrifice occurred regularly among the Druids. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the Druids "covered their altars with the blood" of the victims, who were mostly criminals. According to Caesar, human sacrifice was a common and frequent element in Druidism. In large cages, scores of people were burned alive at once; the larger the number of victims, the greater the yield of crops. According to Lucan, a 1st century Latin poet, in Pharsalia, three Celt gods in particular were hungry for human souls-Teutates, Esus and Taranis." The struggles of the dying victims were held to contain predictions of the future. The Druids had full confidence in human sacrifice as a method of divination. 'The Druids,' says Tacitus, 'consult the gods in the palpitating entrails of men, while Strabo informs us that they stabbed human victims in the back with a sword and then drew omens from the convulsive movements made by him during his death-struggles. Diodorus says that predictions were made based on the posture in which the victim fell, from his contortions, and the direction in which the blood flowed from the body. From these, 'they formed their predictions according to certain rules left them by their ancestors.'
The Druids believed that on October 31, the night before their New Year and the last day of the old year, Samhain, the Lord of Death, gathered the souls of the evil dead who had been condemned to enter the bodies of animals. It was believed that he would then decide what animal form they would take for the next year. (The souls of the good dead were reincarnated as humans.) The Druids also believed that the punishment of the evil dead would be lightened by sacrifices, prayers and gifts to the Lord of Death. This is strangely similar to the non-Biblical concept of purgatory.
Druid worshipers attempted to placate and appease the Lord of Death because of his power over the souls of the dead, whether these souls were good or evil. For those who had died during the preceding 12 months, Samhain allowed their spirits to return to earth to their former places of habitation for a few hours to associate once again with their families.
It was on these occasions that ancient fire festivals, with huge bonfires set on hilltops, were set to "frighten away evil spirits." The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day, and the autumnal festival acquired a sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. The hilltop Halloween fires of the Scots were called Samhnagan, suggesting the lingering influence of the ancient Celtic festivals.
On this night, evil or frustrated ghosts were supposed to play tricks on humans and cause supernatural manifestations. As part of the celebration, people donned grotesque masks and danced around huge bonfires to scare away the evil spirits. Food was also put out to allow the good dead that Samhain had released to feel welcome and at home. Halloween was also thought to be the most favorable time for divination's concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil could be invoked for such purposes.
Other worldwide festivals also celebrate a time when the dead return to mingle with the living. The Hindus have their night of Holi. The Iroquois Indians celebrate a Feast of the Dead every 12 years. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead begins on November 2. In Russia, all the witches are said to gather once a year, as celebrated in Moussorgsky's Night on the Bare Mountain, which was featured in Walt Disney's Fantasia. In early American history, Halloween was not practiced. It was not widely observed until the 20th century. It was introduced by the Irish Catholic settlements. (Ireland is the only country in the world where Halloween is a national holiday.)
In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church attempted to oppose the paganism involved in the Samhain festival by making November 1 All Saints' Day, a day commemorating all the saints of the church. The first evidence for the November 1st date of the church celebration occurred during the reign of Pope Gregory III (731-741). In 837 Pope Gregory IV ordered its general observance. November 2 was later designated as All Souls' Day, which eventually became a special day to pray for the dead.
In the late 1800s, it was customary for English Catholics to assemble at midnight on Halloween to pray for the souls of their departed friends. On November 2 in Belgium, people eat special "All Soul's" cakes because, supposedly, the more cakes you eat on this night, the more souls you can save from Purgatory. In Sicily, on All Soul's Day, cakes with images of skulls and skeletons are eaten. In France, All Soul's Day (Le Jour des Marts) is dedicated to prayers for the dead who are not yet glorified. In earlier times, people took special bread called "souls" to the cemeteries, placing it on the graves. The people ate these "soul cakes" because they were thought to be a powerful antidote against any flames of purgatory that might be invoked by returning ghosts. At dusk the festival changed from All Saint's Day to All Soul's Eve. Lighted candles were placed on graves and in windows, to guide the dead back home.
Modern Halloween Traditions
Gradually, Halloween became a secular observance, and many customs and practices developed.
The carved pumpkin may have originated with the witches' use of a skull with a candle inside to light the way to coven meetings. However, the legend of "Irish Jack" is also told: A stingy drunk named Jack tricked the devil into climbing an apple tree for an apple, but then cut the sign of a cross into the trunk of the tree-preventing the devil from coming down. Jack forced the devil to swear he would never come after Jack's soul. The devil reluctantly agreed. When Jack eventually died he was turned away from the gates of heaven because of his life of drunkenness and selfishness. He next went to the devil who also rejected him, keeping his promise. As Jack was leaving hell (and happening to be eating a turnip) the devil threw a live coal at him. Condemned to wander the earth, Jack put the coal inside the turnip, making a "jack o'lantern." Eventually, pumpkins replaced the turnip.
Trick-or-Treat and Costumes
Among the ancient Druids, the ghosts that were thought to throng about the houses of the living were greeted with a banquet-laden table. At the end of the feast, masked and costumed villagers representing the souls of the dead paraded to the outskirts of town, allegedly leading the ghosts away. Immigrants to the U.S., particularly the Irish, introduced Halloween customs that became popular in the 19th century. Traditional mischief making on this occasion was eventually replaced by the familiar small children going house to house, usually in costume, demanding "trick or treat." Going from door to door seeking treats may hail back to the Druid practice of begging material for the great bonfires. This is also similar to the Catholic concept of purgatory and the custom of begging for a "soul cake". The "trick" custom of Halloween appears to be derived from the idea that ghosts and witches created mischief on the living if they did not provide the "treats". It became obvious to some people that a sense of humor could be camouflaged by blaming practical jokes on the ghosts or witches roaming about.
1: The other three festivals were Lugnasad, August 1 (known in England as Lammas, and in Ireland as Brontroghain); Beltaine, May 1 ("Bel" was the ruler of the Celtic underworld; "taine" means fire; in Ireland, this festival was also known as Samradh or Cetsamain; in Wales it was Cyntefun); and Oimelc, February 1 (known in Ireland as Earrach).
2: Encyclopedia Britannica, "Celtic Religion"
3: Julius Caesar, Commentaries, Book 6, Chapter 18.
This article was originally found in Personal Update Magazine which is supplied by Koinonia House