by John Morgan
Halloween’s history is a mixed caldron of traditions and beliefs. It’s been brewing since long before the days the Romans sailed to the British Isles to collide with the Celts in 43 AD. Over time, Celtic, ancient Roman, pagan rituals and Catholic traditions all fused together to create a new celebration.
For many cultures, harvest time is the most important event of the year – it certainly was the case for Celts who held “Samhain” festivals at the end of their harvest season. A successful harvest helped to ensure food for people and their livestock (pretty important, vital for survival). Conversely, a poor harvest was a harbinger of hardship and dire days ahead (bad thing, must be avoided).
In the days of Samhain festivals, it was believed that this was also the time when the ghosts of the dead got to frolic with the living. Spirits of departed loved ones were welcomed with offerings of food and drink. However, the Celts discouraged unwelcomed visitors from the beyond by donning frightening disguises; thereby, enforcing their version of “no shoes, no shirt, no service” policy. So with the Samhain festival traditions, we see people offering goodies and wearing costumes – already things are beginning to sound familiar.
All well and good, but where does all this blending of cultures come into play in shaping Halloween? The ancient Romans were some of the greatest empire builders the world has ever known and Catholic missionaries have spread their beliefs across the globe. Ultimately, these two important powers and belief shapers made their way and influence felt – either by sword or cross – throughout the Celtic regions.
Now back in the day, Romans celebrated a pagan festival of the dead, which as everyone knows, was celebrated at the end of February – the end of the Roman year. When the Romans conquered the Celts, they learned that Celts too had their own celebration of the dead which was the second major function of the Samhain ceremonies and it was held on the Celtic New Year, November 1st.
Rather than to outright abolish existing traditional celebrations, it ultimately became more effective for the conquering people and/or key influencers to overlay their beliefs and ideologies on top of the local customs and beliefs. Thereby, getting what we call today “buy-in” for the new powerbrokers rebranding or repurposing efforts of existing local customs and such was the case that eventfully led to the creation of Halloween.
Ok, so here’s where things get tricky, but it’s also where hopefully things come together. We have two separate cultures the Celts and the Romans – each with their own traditions and beliefs – now we have Catholic missionaries with their uniqueness coming into the mix. Both the Celts and the Romans have festivals celebrating harvest and the dead. The Catholics had their own time designated (timeline still debated, may have been held at various dates depending upon the location – most sources link the original date to May 13) to honor and remember Catholic Saints.
Now, as best as we can tell, Pope Gregory III recognized that it must costing people a small fortune purchasing special occasion cards for all these various festivals and celebrations, so he took pity on everyone and moved the entire ball of wax lips to November 1st. It became known as “All Saints Day” or “All Hallows’ Day” which in turn made October 31st “All Hallows’ Evening.” And just as fast as you can say, “what’s a nine letter word of Scottish origin that marks the celebration held on the last day of October?” …presto, change-o, you have Halloween!
As you can tell, we’ve just scratched the surface of Halloween’s history. You’ve glimpsed its origins. Yet for Halloween to endure for roughly two thousand years it must cast a strong spell heavily laced with enormous appeal, community spirit and incredible adaptability. Halloween has always demonstrated a remarkable ability to adjust or conform to fit the cultural norms reflected in the people celebrating it. Keep checking for future entries in which we will explore how Halloween celebrations have changed throughout the years.