The Origins of Halloween: Appeasing and Honoring the Dead

The fascinating origins of Halloween date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The Celts, who lived in an area that is now the United Kingdom over 2,000 years ago, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day represented the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of winter This was a time that was commonly associated with death.

Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the worlds of the living and the dead crossed. On the night of October 31 they celebrated the festival of Samhain. When the ghosts of the dead returned to earth causing mischief and destroying crops, the Celts believed that their presence made it possible for the Druids (Celtic priests) to make predictions about the future. These prophets provided direction and security for surviving the deadly winter that lay ahead. 

Huge sacred bonfires were built where people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to their gods. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes typically consisting of animal heads and skins. This is where the fortune telling occurred. When the festival ended, they re-lit their hearth fires from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during their season of death - the cold and darkness of winter.

By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had taken over the majority of Celtic land. Over the course of 400 years, two Roman festivals were combined with the Celtic celebration of Samhain. The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans honored their dead. The second festival honored Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is an apple and most likely explains the tradition of “bobbing” for apples that is practiced on Halloween to this day.

In 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to honor Christian martyrs and the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day was established in the Western church. Pope Gregory III (731–741 AD) expanded the festival to include all saints as well as martyrs, and moved the day from May 13 to November 1. By the 9th century, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands where it gradually blended with the older Celtic rituals. In 1000 AD, the church would make November 2 All Souls’ Day - a day to honor the dead.

It is believed that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned, holiday. All Souls Day was celebrated similar to Samhain. Bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels and devils became custom. The All Saints Day celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day) and the night before, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween.

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