On 31 October, we celebrate the holiday known as Halloween. Although the revelries and observances of this day primarily occur in regions of the Western world, it has become an increasingly popular tradition across the globe, especially in Eastern Europe and in Asian countries such as Japan and China.
Conventionally, we host costume parties, watch scary movies, carve pumpkins and light bonfires to celebrate the occasion, while the younger generations are off trick-or-treating down the road.
Just like any holiday we tend to celebrate, we can trace the origin of Halloween far back in time. Beyond the scary pranks and the spooky outfits, the festivities have a rich, cultural history.
The origins of Halloween can be traced back all the way to the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain – pronounced ‘sow-in’ in Gaelic language. It was originally an event that marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter in Ireland. The day after, on 1 November, would mark the ancient Celts’ new year.
Like other ancient Gaelic festivals, Samhain was seen to be a liminal time, when the boundaries separating the spiritual world and the real world were reduced. This is why Halloween has become associated with appearance of spirits, fairies and ghosts from the mythical ‘Otherworld’.
When the lines were blurred between worlds of the living and the dead, Celts used the opportunity to honour and worship their ancestors. Many, however, were concerned about the access darker and evil spirits had to influence those in the real world.
This is why many Celts dressed their children as demons to confuse the evil spirits and marked their doors with animal blood to deter unwanted visitors.
With newly uncovered archaeological evidence, historians are almost certain that animal, as well as human sacrifices, were made during Samhain to honour the dead and the Celtic Gods. It is thought that the famous ‘Irish Bog Bodies’ may be the remains of Kings who were sacrificed. They suffered the ‘threefold death’, which involved wounding, burning and drowning.
Crops were also burnt and bonfires were made as part of the worship of Celtic deities. Some sources claim these fires were made to honour the ancestors, while others indicate that these fires were part of the deterrence of evil spirits.
Roman and Christian Influence
Once Roman forces had conquered a vast amount of Celtic territory by 43 AD in Northern France and the British Isles, traditional Roman religious festivals were assimilated with the pagan celebrations.
The Roman festival of Feralia was traditionally celebrated in late October (although some historians suggest the festival occurred in February). It was a day to commemorate the souls and spirits of the dead, and was hence one of the first festivals to be combined with the Celtic festival of Samhain.
Another festival was the day of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. In Roman religion, the symbol that represented this goddess was an apple. This has led many to believe the Halloween tradition of apple bobbing originated from this Roman influence on the Celtic celebration.
It is believed that from the 9th century AD, Christianity had began to influence and displace old pagan rituals within the Celtic regions. At the behest of Pope Gregory VI, ‘All Hallows’ Day’ was assigned to the date of 1 November – the first day of the Celtic new year. The Pope, nevertheless, renamed the event ‘All Saints’ Day’, in honour of all the Christian Saints.
‘All Saints’ Day’ and ‘All Hallows’ Day’ are terms that have been used interchangeably throughout history. The eve before these dates was then called ‘Hallowe’en’ – a contraction of ‘Hallows’ Evening’. In the last century however, the holiday has been referred to simply as Halloween, celebrated on ‘Eve’ before the Day of the Hallows, on 31 October.