Halloween’s ancient history and nuanced passage

By Shane Richard Bell

Staff writer/Coeur d’Alene Press

Of all the holidays, Halloween is the most contentious.

Angels and demons, Paganism and Christianity, sacrifices and traditions. Superstition, paranormal activity, the unknown.

Merry college parties with too little clothing and too much beer; quaint corn mazes and haunted houses by the Lions Club; black cats, bobbing for apples swirling in saliva, trick-or-treating, and babies in pumpkin costumes.

Why do superstition, religion and culture all collide on this holiday?

Halloween opinions follow an onslaught of influences- some revel in it, some abhor it, and some hardly acknowledge it.

The passage of Halloween stretches from the birth of Jesus Christ to the modern Americas. “Halloween developed from an ancient pagan festival celebrated by Celtic people over 2,000 years ago in the area that is now the United Kingdom, Ireland, and northwestern France. The festival was called Samhain (pronounced SOW ehn).” (“Halloween,” 2012 World Book Online InfoFinder)

The festival marked the end of the harvest season, ushering in the new year and the long, dark winter ahead. This threshold was centered around human death. “Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth.” (“Halloween,” www.history.com)

The spirits and the Celts had a sort of love-hate relationship. On one hand, they caused them trouble and damaged their crops; on the other, they were mediums to the Druids, the Celtic priests, delivering life-saving prophecies in a very unpredictable natural world. The spirits’ words of comfort and direction assured them during the grueling months of winter.

“To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. The Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.”(“Halloween,” www.history.com)

Geopolitics were a huge factor in merging the Celtics’ festival of Halloween with Christianity.  “By 43 A.D., the Roman Empire had conquered the majority of Celtic territory.” (“Halloween,” www.history.com) The Romans combined Samhain with two of their own festivals, Feralia, a fall festival commemorating the deceased, and Pomona, a festival venerating the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona’s symbol was an apple, and very well may be the origin of the Halloween bobbing for apples tradition.

In the late eighth century, the Roman Catholic Church adopted the festivals and made it a holiday. “Pope Gregory II designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs; the holiday, All Saints’ Day, incorporated some of the traditions of Samhain.” (“Halloween,” www.history.com) “It is widely believed that the church was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday.”

The passage of Halloween crawled through the Americas with the mindset of European, Protestant settlers. However, once again, different people groups began meshing their traditions and festivals together, and the American Indians and various European ethnic groups, established the American version of Halloween.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, emigrants were flocking to America. “These new immigrants, especially the millions of Irish fleeing Ireland’s potato famine of 1846, helped to popularize the celebration of Halloween nationally.” (“Halloween,” www.history.com) Like Halloween today, they organized “play parties,” wore costumes, and went door to door asking for food and money (the precursor to trick-or-treating).

The magic of Halloween lies in how its traditions have evolved each year. Halloween is the culmination of two thousand years worth of stories, rooted in the landscape of culture, climate, religion and geography. It’s a story that began thousands of miles away, traveled across the Atlantic and landed in the Americas; it’s a part of our story, our ancestors, and our past.

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