Is Halloween actually a celebration of evil, or just a harmless reminder of some ancient pagan rituals? Over the last two centuries, it has been demonised to make it more popular with the general public, but in reality, this is far from being the truth.
“Halloween”, as a word, is a contracted corruption of All Hallows Eve. November 1, “All Hollows Day” (or “All Saints Day”), a Catholic day of observance in honor of saints, introduced in 835 AD, but the celebration is one of the oldest holidays with origins going back thousands of years. Hundreds of years ago in what is now Great Britain and Northern France, lived the Celts. The Celts worshipped nature and had many gods, with the sun god as their favorite.
They celebrated their New Year on November 1 every year, with a festival and marked the end of the “season of the sun” and the beginning of “the season of darkness and cold.” The Druids, the Celtic priests, would meet in the hilltop in the dark oak forest (oak trees were considered sacred) light new fires and offer sacrifices of crops and animals. As they danced around the fires, the season of the sun passed and the season of darkness would begin.
People believed that, on that day, the disembodied spirits of all those who had died throughout the preceding year would come back in search of living bodies to possess for the next year, their only hope for the afterlife. The Celts believed all laws of space and time were suspended during this time, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living.
Of course, nobody wanted to be possessed. So on the night of October 31, villagers would extinguish the fires in their homes, to make them cold and undesirable. Then they dressed up in all manner of ghoulish costumes and went noisily around the village, being as destructive as possible in order to frighten away spirits looking for bodies to possess.
When the morning arrived the Druids would give an ember from their fires to each family who would then take them home to start new cooking fires. These fires would keep the homes warm and free from evil spirits. This
November 1st festival was called Samhain (pronounced “sow-en”). The festival would last for 3 days. Many people would parade in costumes made from the skins and heads of their animals. This festival would become the first Halloween.
Romans also adopted Celtic practices as their own, but in the first century AD, Samhain was assimilated into other Roman traditional celebrations of October, such as their day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, which might explain the origin of our modern tradition of bobbing for apples on Halloween.
As belief in spirit possession waned, the practice of dressing up like hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches took on a more ceremonial role. The custom of Halloween was brought to America in the 1840’s by Irish immigrants, fleeing the notorious Irish potato famine. Favourite pranks in New England, then, included tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence gates.
Trick-or-treating is thought not to have Irish Celtic origins, but to stem from a ninth-century European custom called ‘souling’. On All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for “soul cakes,” made out of square pieces of bread with currants. The more soul cakes the beggars would receive, the more prayers they would promise to say on behalf of the dead relatives of the donors. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in limbo for a time after death, and that prayer, even by strangers, could expedite a soul’s passage to heaven.
Jack-o-lantern probably did come from Irish folklore. The story has it that a man named Jack, notorious as a drunkard and trickster, tricked Satan into climbing a tree. Jack then carved an image of a cross in the tree’s trunk, trapping the devil up the tree. Jack made a deal with the devil that, if he would never tempt him again, he would promise to let him down the tree. According to the folk tale, after Jack died, he was denied entrance to Heaven because of his evil ways, but he was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the devil.
Instead, the devil gave him a single ember to light his way through the frigid darkness. The ember was placed inside a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer. This turnip was ‘Jack’s lantern’, so the Irish always used turnips until the immigrants to America found that pumpkins were far more plentiful. So the Jack-O-Lantern in America was a hollowed-out pumpkin, lit with an ember.
So Halloween did not grow out of evil practices, but out of New Year celebrations, at a time when the end of the growing season was seen as the end of the year. Today, many churches have Halloween parties or pumpkin carving events. So Halloween, like anything else, is only ever as evil as you care to make it, if truth be told.