October 23 2020

The Celtic Origins of Halloween


Halloween draws from Celtic and Christian traditions.

It’s always been a spooky night but over the centuries, how Halloween is celebrated has changed a lot!

Even during the pandemic, Americans are going to spend somewhere in the region of €8 Billion, with 58% planning on celebrating. Halloween is such a big night in the US that people sometime think Halloween originated there.

In fact, Halloween is  celebrated all over the world in many different ways. Turns out a lot of these customs go back centuries. What was once an ancient tradition is now an annual party with spooky lights, scary costumes and treats for the children.

For the Celts, who lived during the Iron Age in what is now Ireland, Scotland, the U.K. and other parts of Northern Europe, Samhain (meaning literally, in modern Irish, “summer’s end”) marked the end of summer and began the Celtic new year. The new year signaled a time of both death and rebirth, something that was also symbolic because it coincided with the end of a plentiful harvest season and the beginning of a cold and dark winter season.

In Celtic mythology, the distance between the Otherworld and our world narrows during Samhain, making it easier for spirits and the souls of the dead to return. People would make offerings of food in an attempt to be nice to spirits and departed ancestors.

The spiritual undertones of the Samhain festival also lent themselves to looking to the future, an activity quite fitting to the start of the Celtic new year; History.com notes that Druids (Celtic priests) thought that “the presence of otherworldly spirits made it easier…to make predictions about the future.” At the bonfires of the festival, fortune-telling took place alongside sacrifices, and many participants wore costumes, often posing as animals or beasts, hoping to fool spirits who might want to harm them.

The practices of this fire festival changed over time — especially with the spread of Christianity and the Catholic church, and by 43 A.D., when Rome had conquered most Celtic lands. In Jack Santino’s Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances, he explains how, during this time, many of Celtic traditions were reframed with a Christian narrative in an attempt to exploit the popularity of the pagan practices while spreading the new religion. This helped create many of the Halloween traditions that people still participate in today.

It was May 13 in the year 609 that Pope Boniface IV declared a celebration called All Saints’ Day, also called All-hallows or All-Hallowmas in Middle English; the day before it was known as All-hallows’ Eve, as History.com explains. The festival was a day to honor Christian martyrs and saints. Later, in the mid-eighth century, Pope Gregory III moved the celebration to November 1, coinciding with the time Samhain would have typically been held. The homage paid to martyrs and saints who passed closely paralleled the appeasing of ghosts of the dead during Samhain. The church’s taking advantage of Samhain traditions didn’t end there as those celebrating the new version of the holiday did so in much the same way as their Celtic ancestors had — with bonfires and costumes that reflected the spiritual and otherworldly. The offerings of food and goods to protect themselves from spirits and ancestral ghosts became offerings of food and drink to the poor, displays of generosity and goodwill. And the tricks attributed to otherworldly and evil spirits manifested themselves in the spirit of the saints.

Eventually, All-hallows’ Eve evolved into Halloween, becoming more popular in secular culture than All Saints’ Day. The pagan-turned-Christian practices of dressing up in costume, playing tricks and handing out offerings have evolved into popular traditions even for those who may not believe in otherworldly spirits or saints. However, whether people celebrating Halloween know it or not, they’re following in the footsteps of ancient Celts who, with the festival of Samhain, celebrated the inevitability of death and rebirth.

Are you afraid of the dark? :)

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