Each year, millions of Americans get all dressed up to resemble their favorite characters, alter-egos or even inanimate objects to celebrate Halloween. Interestingly, the history of Halloween is almost as tricky as the Trick-or-Treat oriented night itself.
Halloween is Rooted in Ancient Celtic Tradition
For the most part, Halloween is rooted in an ancient Celtic tradition called Samhain (pronounced sah-win), which translates to “summer’s end” in Gaelic (the Celtic language). Unfortunately, history is a bit spotty when it comes to all of the details surrounding this special day, since written records from that period are scarce.
What we do know is that Samhain was celebrated around November 1st and was a way to honor the abundance of fall’s harvest, the end of warm summer days and the beginning of the cooler weather patterns that would lead into winter.
Samhain traditions included:
- Bonfires that were said to keep away ghosts and spirits
- The wearing of costumes that would both “trick” a ghost into thinking you were something else so it wouldn’t bother you and would hopefully scare or spend time with someone else.
- Costumes were also worn for people to participate in a custom called “mumming” or “guising,” where they went door-to-door to beg for food. These costumed individuals often performed brief sketches or skits in exchange for food.
- Some historians say that Celtic lore held that this time of the year was one when spirits were more likely to be present and could communicate with their relatives in the world of the living.
- The telling of fortunes by Celtic priestesses and those with “the sight” to others since the ‘veils between worlds’ are considered thinner at this time of year.
It’s easy to see how many of these traditions have been interpreted through the ages, in the form of costumes, trick-or-treating and also adding the symbolism of skulls, ghosts and otherworldly sounds and spooky experiences. Of course, there are also the traditions of pumpkins and gourds, cornucopias and other signature decorations that honor the harvest and autumn’s abundance.
Over time, the Celtic peoples were conquered by the Romans. As a result, there was a clash – and then blending - of cultures. The Romans, too, had a late October holiday to honor the dead. This holiday was called Feralia. Similarly, they had a fall harvest holiday dedicated to Pomona, the goddess of fruit and trees. This latter holiday is believed to be the reason why bobbing for apples became a traditional Halloween activity.
Celtics Weren’t the Only Ones Who Honored This Time of Year
Of course, Celtics weren’t the only ones that paid attention to the change in seasons, lighting and energy at this time of year. Latin American cultures already had a holiday that honored their dead ancestors. This holiday is called Día de los Muertos. While it has now been incorporated into the same period of the calendar as Halloween and All Saints Day, it was originally celebrated in July. The change is attributed to the Spanish Conquistadors trying to find a way to convert more followers to their Catholic tradition – by combining one of their holidays, All Saints, with the Día de los Muertos traditions.
Christianity is similarly associated with the translation of Samhain traditions into Halloween traditions. All Martyrs Day was created in the 7th century, by Pope Boniface IV to honor all Christian martyrs. The following century, Pope Gregory III built on this tradition to include the Christian saints as well. The day was renamed “All Saints Day.” The term All Saint’s Day gave rise to the phrase “All Hallow’s Eve,” which eventually evolved into “Halloween.”
Today, Halloween and the days surrounding it abound with parties, festivals, carnivals and activities that are all rooted in these ancient traditions, although families choose to honor them (or forbid the honoring of them) in their own way.
Regardless of which traditions your family observes, the crew at Joshua Tree wishes you and your family a very safe All Saints Day, Halloween and/or Día de los Muertos. Looking for something to do between now and Halloween? Mark your calendar for October 22nd & 23rd and join us for the 14th Annual Eastern Pennsylvania Home Show. If you subscribe to our newsletter, you’ll receive a coupon next week for free admittance. It’s a trick-and-treat worth going to!